Michael Gerson

The first Mormon to run for president was the first Mormon. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, formally announced his candidacy on Jan. 19, 1844, urging his supporters to "tell the people we have had Whig and Democrats presidents long enough. We want a president of the United States." Smith's campaign lasted about five months before it -- along with his life -- was ended by a violent mob in Carthage, Ill.

Mitt Romney's campaign has been better received. He possesses a winning public personality, enough personal wealth to ensure that he will be around when the voting starts and durable strength in Iowa and New Hampshire that could slingshot him to the nomination. As the author of an impressive oxymoron -- Republican governor of Massachusetts -- Romney stakes a strong claim to electability. And even after some recent ideological reinvention on social issues, he has successfully courted conservatives. The only criticism I have heard of Romney after these meetings is that he may be "too perfect" because of his Osmond-like looks and wholesomeness -- which is another way of saying he might seem "too Mormon."

Without intending or desiring it, the Romney campaign has poked the sleeping bear of debate about the role of religion in American politics. Liberals tend to argue that all theological beliefs, including Mormonism, are fundamentally private and dangerously coercive as the basis of public policy. Some religious conservatives are concerned that this particular theology is too eccentric to be welcomed at the White House.

Facing even deeper suspicions about his Catholicism while running for president in 1960, John Kennedy gave a response at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association that was politically masterful, historically influential -- and should not be Romney's model. Kennedy said that a candidate's "views on religion are his own private affair," which should not be "imposed by him upon the nation." Kennedy did more than reassure Americans that his public decisions would not be dictated by the pope. He claimed that his public decisions would not be influenced by his religious convictions at all.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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