Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is his biggest political hurdle. The Massachusetts governor, who will almost certainly seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, has become a dark-horse favorite thanks to his achievements (health-care reform) and personal qualities (he’s charismatic, smart, and absurdly wholesome). But in a 1999 Gallup poll, 17 percent of respondents said they wouldn’t vote for a presidential candidate who’s a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. And since the conservative evangelicals prominent in today’s GOP are deeply suspicious of the LDS Church, Romney’s religion could cripple him in the Republican primaries. Romney knows he needs to dispel these heebie-jeebies to win the presidency, so he’s spent the past few months figuring out how to play the Mormon card.
He’s already rejected the JFK approach. When voters worried that Kennedy’s Catholicism would make him a papal surrogate in the White House, JFK promised that his religion would have no effect on his politics. Romney tried a similar tack back in 1994—during his U.S. Senate campaign against Ted Kennedy, no less—when Teddy linked Romney to the LDS Church’s refusal, prior to 1978, to ordain African-American men. Romney responded by invoking JFK, and Kennedy looked like a hypocrite. But this strategy won’t work for Romney today. As a Republican and self-styled social conservative, Romney’s courting voters who want faith to shape government; he’s got to be a kind of theological ambassador, playing up the good aspects of Mormonism and minimizing the bad.
Sometimes Romney seems capable of pulling it off. In recent months, for example, he’s done a nice job convincing pundits and the public that religious voters care more about core values than theological minutiae. During a February trip to South Carolina, a key primary state, Romney was asked how his faith would go over with Southern evangelicals. “Most people in South Carolina want a person of faith as their leader,” he replied.“But they don’t care what brand of faith that is … I believe Jesus Christ is my savior. I believe in God. I’m a person of faith and I believe that’s the type of person Americans want.” Romney’s contention that the “brand of faith” doesn’t matter is debatable—but if he keeps saying it, and enough people take up the mantra on his behalf, some skeptics might change their minds. Romney’s hard sell is already working with the press: In a recent column on Romney’s ‘08 prospects, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter asserted that “[M]ost just want a believer, regardless of faith”—a line that could have been penned by the governor himself.
But Romney isn’t always so nimble. For one thing, he really, really likes joking about polygamy—the ultimate Mormon oddity, and one in which Romney’s family was directly involved. (According to the LDS Church’s Family Search service, Miles Park Romney, Mitt’s great-grandfather, had five wives; the church repudiated polygamy in 1890.) “I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman … and a woman … and a woman,” Romney quipped at the 2005 St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in Boston. He made the same joke on Don Imus’$2 2006 St. Patrick’s Day show. Thanks to Romney’s perfect delivery and the self-deprecating subtext—the tension between Romney’s defense of “traditional” marriage and his own ancestors’ history—it’s a pretty funny line. But if you’re trying to convince evangelicals that you share their values, why make your job more difficult? For that matter, why annoy your fellow faithful, who could be a big help in your presidential campaign but tend to bristle at plural-marriage humor? In addition, when Romney gets all huffy in response to Big Love-inspired questions about polygamy (“Actually, it’s not a Mormon family. My church has long ago given up that practice,” he lectured Chris Matthews), his own shtick makes it hard to take him seriously.
What’s more, there’s a desperate quality to Romney’s eagerness for approval from non-Mormon religious notables. In March, Romney traveled to Rome for Boston Archbishop Seán O’Malley’s elevation to cardinal. It was a nice photo-op for the governor, who’s sure to tout this trip—and his cooperation with O’Malley in fights against gay marriage and stem-cell research in Massachusetts—while courting the Catholic vote nationwide. But Romney overreacted, embarrassing himself with breathless commentary about what a big deal his Vatican junket was. “This is extraordinary, and particularly for someone of my faith,” Romney gushed at a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in New Hampshire prior to his trip. “I don’t know that there’s ever been a Mormon guy that’s been to the Vatican for a mass held by the Pope, so it’s a personal honor.” Thanks for the reminder that Mormons are religious pariahs, governor. Worse, a Romney spokesperson told the BostonGlobe that A) Romney and O’Malley were friends; and B) the archbishop had invited the governor to make the trip. Romney just looked foolish when O’Malley told the Globe he hadn’t invited Romney and didn’t really know him all that well. (An O’Malley spokesman eventually explained that Romney had received an invitation “similar to that extended to the general public.”)
The good news for Romney is that there’s still time to work out the kinks in his spiel. But even if he ditches the cheesy jokes and learns to play it cool when he has an ecumenical moment, he’ll never be able to offer Mormonism the defense it deserves. The LDS Church seems strange because it’s new, which makes the human agency behind it especially palpable. In contrast, the passage of time has given the weirder aspects of other faiths a patina of sanctity. In a perfect world, Romney could point this out to any and all anti-Mormon voters, perhaps using some lighthearted religious banter to drive the point home: So, are you Catholics still praying to little bits of saints’ bodies, or what? But now that Romney’s a social conservative with national aspirations, such a move would be political suicide. Compared to Mitt, JFK had it easy.