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.
There is a long tradition of American leaders who believe that religion is so personal it shouldn't even affect their private lives. But this rigid separation between religious conviction and public policy lies outside the main current of American history. Abraham Lincoln's theology, while hardly orthodox, was not his "own private affair." "Nothing stamped with the divine image and likeness," he asserted, "was sent into the world to be trodden on." Martin Luther King Jr. claimed that to find the source of our rights, "it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity, for they are God-given."
These were theological arguments, not merely rhetorical adornments. But they were also carefully limited.
American political leaders have generally not talked about soteriology -- how the individual soul is saved. In Christian theology, these choices are fundamentally private, and government attempts to influence them are both doomed and tyrannical. American leaders have also wisely avoided the topic of eschatology -- inherently speculative theories about the end or culmination of history.
But religious convictions on the topic of anthropology-- the nature and value of men and women -- have profoundly and positively influenced American history. Many of the greatest advances toward the protection of minority rights, from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement, came in part because people of faith pushed for them. And religious men and women made those efforts because they were convinced that all human beings -- not just all believers -- are created in God's image.
So what does this mean for Romney? Many Christians have serious problems with Mormon theology on personal salvation and the nature of history -- disputes that go much deeper than those between, say, Baptists and Presbyterians. These disagreements are theologically important. But they are not politically important, because they are unrelated to governing.
Romney, however, should not make Kennedy's mistake and assert that all religious beliefs are unrelated to politics. What Mormonism shares with other religious traditions is a strong commitment to the value and dignity of human beings, including the unborn, the disabled and the poor. This conviction is unavoidably political, because it leads men and women to act in the cause of justice, not in order to impose their religion, but to protect the weak.
Given this common ground, evangelicals and other religious conservatives should not disqualify Romney from the outset. There may be other reasons to oppose him for president, but his belief about the destiny of the soul is not one of them.