Religion is moving centre-stage in the US presidential election, writes Kieron Wood
The victory of Mormon Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucus last week has once more highlighted the importance of religion in US presidential elections. In the 2012 Iowa caucus of January 3, Romney took only 25 per cent of the vote, but pipped Christian conservative Rick Santorum by eight votes.
Without doubt, religion played a part in the close result. According to a Pew Research Centre poll, 53pc of white evangelical Protestants believe that Mormonism is not Christian (compared with 22pc of white Catholic Republican voters).
Reflecting that view, while 26pc of white Catholic Republicans would support Romney, only 17pc of white evangelical Protestants would do so.
Since the time of the first US president, George Washington, the majority of US presidents have been Episcopalian — that is, American Anglicans. Of the 44 presidents to date, 14 have been Episcopalian, but the rest have been a mixed bag, ranging from Dutch Reformed (Martin van Buren and Theodore Roosevelt) to Disciples of Christ (James Garfield and Lyndon Johnson).
An overwhelming majority have been — at least nominally — Christian. The furore over the religion of President Barack Hussein Obama (Google offers 86 million webpages discussing whether he is a Muslim) indicates the extent of the fascination with religion in the United States.
As long ago as 1800, anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson — who believed that organised religion was corrupt — was labelled an ‘infidel’.
Voters were warned that, if he were elected president, he would order the removal of all Bibles from public buildings and private homes. (Jefferson won the election, but no Bibles were confiscated.)
More than a century later, when Unitarian William Howard Taft ran for the 1908 presidential nomination, Democrats questioned whether he was a ‘true Christian’, as he had declared that he did not believe in the divinity of Christ.
In the 1960 campaign between Catholic John F. Kennedy and Quaker Richard Nixon, Kennedy made it clear that his faith would not influence his decisions as president.
Anti-semitism has been an issue too. The fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had Jewish advisers led Adolf Hitler to suggest that his real surname was Rosenfeld.
But although the 1964 Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, had a Jewish father, the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman was Jewish and the 2004 Democratic candidate John Kerry had Jewish forebears, no US presidential candidate has actually been a Jew.
It was the 1976 Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter who reintroduced the mainstream discussion of religion in the United States when he proclaimed himself a ”born-again Christian”.
By the time Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, voters were unconcerned that his father had been a Catholic and his mother a Protestant.
Similarly, the 1988 Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis encountered no religious prejudice as a result of his Greek Orthodox faith.
But 64-year-old Mitt Romney is outside the traditional definition of a Christian. He is a sixth-generation member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a conservative group which claims to be Christian, but which professes beliefs which stray far from the Christian tradition.
The church — or sect, as its opponents call it — dates from 1820 when its founder, Joseph Smith, claimed to have had a divine revelation from Jesus and/or God the Father in Vermont. (Smith’s recollection is somewhat hazy.)
Following a second vision in September 1823, Smith began to write the Book of Mormon, which he said had been revealed to him on golden plates.
It bore a remarkable similarity to the King James Bible, but included a host of new ‘revelations’ about Jesus Christ. Today, the book is still regarded by Mormons as divine revelation.
In 1830, following another revelation, Smith moved to Kirtland, Ohio, and ordered a temple to be built. This served as the base for many of the group’s secret religious ceremonies, founded on freemasonic rituals. The secret handshakes and passwords, the washing and anointing of naked initiates and clothing in a special undergarment are part of Mitt Romney’s culture. Smith also produced several other books of commandments and prophesies, claiming to be able to translate common Egyptian funerary scrolls, which he alleged dated from the time of Abraham.
Despite Smith’s introduction of the ‘Word of Wisdom’, banning alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee, the ‘prophet’ lived a dissolute life, taking dozens of young ‘wives’, preaching polygamy to his close followers, drinking alcohol and running an illegal bank which failed, owing more than $150,000.
When a local newspaper condemned the prophet’s sexual licence, its offices were burned down and Smith was arrested. He was imprisoned in Carthage Jail where a mob shot him dead on the afternoon of 27 June 1844.
The new leader, Brigham Young, resolved to emigrate westwards and the great trek culminated in the founding of Salt Lake City in Utah, the headquarters of modern-day Mormonism.
The church’s teachings are unique. Mormons teach that God the Father is the same person as Adam and Michael the Archangel, who came into the Garden of Eden with Eve, one of his wives, and who ‘helped make and organise this world’.
The Father is also said to be the natural father of Christ, who was a pre-mortal spirit and the elder brother of Satan.
Mormons say that God the Father, whom they call Elohim, lives with Jesus, or Jehovah, close to a distant star called Kolob, and that the gods are subject to physical laws, having physical bodies of flesh and bone.
Mormons believe that all spirits live in a pre-mortal existence, waiting for the chance to enter human bodies (to emulate Christ).
The more children Mormons have, the more bodies they provide for the pre-mortal spirits, so church members are urged to marry, and to reject contraception and abortion. (Romney has five sons and 16 grandchildren.)
During the 19th Century, the sect encouraged men to have as many wives as they wished, but the teaching on polygamy was amended by ‘revelation’ in 1890 so the state of Utah could join the United States.
Another convenient ‘revelation’ came in 1978 when the ‘prophet’ of the Mormon Church revealed that black males could now be ordained as priests in the Order of Melchisedech.
The previous restriction of the senior priesthood on racial grounds had, by that stage, become a serious embarrassment to the church.
But Mormons believe in the eternal nature of church teachings and claim the doctrine of polygamy will be restored in the fullness of time, along with blood sacrifice, burnt offerings and blood-atonement (the slaughter of apostates).
At the centre of Mormon practice are the sect’s temples. There are none in Ireland, so Irish members of the church go to Preston in Lancashire to undergo their secret ceremonies: baptism for the dead, sealing for eternal marriage and the temple endowment.
This involves initiates being stripped, washed and anointed, then dressed in special white underwear, of a type which they wear for the rest of their lives.
Today, the Mormon church claims nine million members and continues to grow, thanks in no small part to its conservative stand on issues like marriage, abortion and homosexuality, its stress on the importance of the family, its ‘clean living’ image and its missionaries.
Romney served for 30 months as a Mormon missionary in France in the 1960s, seeing 200 converts baptised in one year.
Back in the US, he served as ‘ward bishop’ of the Mormon church and later as ‘stake president’ in Boston.
Romney has taken a conservative stand on social issues such as same-sex marriage, but he has been accused of ‘flip-flopping’ on abortion following his earlier ”unequivocal” support for abortion.
However, after what he described as ”an epiphany” while studying stem cell research, he said: ”If you believe that you’re taking innocent life, it’s hard to justify letting other people make that decision.”
He is well aware of Christian concerns about his Mormonism and, in 2007, in his ‘Faith in America’ speech, the former governor of Massachusetts said he should neither be elected nor rejected based on his religion.
”Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone,” he said.
Mitt Romney may yet discover that, for US voters, the freedom to choose religion may also be the freedom to reject America’s first Mormon president.
Kieron Wood is senior assistant editor of The Sunday Business Post and the author of The Latter Day Saints, a Christian Perspective on Mormonism, published by Veritas.