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After his successes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is two crucial steps closer to clinching the 2012 Republican nomination. Though hampered throughout the 2008 election by a Mormon faith that was ridiculed by Mike Huckabee and others, Romney’s religion seems less of an issue this time around-at least so far.
There’s a key historical parallel here, but it’s not the obvious one that everyone seems to making, including Romney himself. Romney is no JFK, a candidate who was able to rise above the cloud of a highly suspect religious faith by virtue of sheer New England charm and a dynastic war chest. No, Romney’s story more closely resembles that of Al Smith, the 1928 Democratic candidate who was the first Catholic to have a legitimate shot at the presidency.
It’s hard for contemporary Americans to imagine how widespread anti-Catholic prejudice was, even into the 1920s. In 1921, a Catholic priest was murdered by a Methodist minister while the former relaxed on his front porch in Birmingham, Alabama; in 1922, voters in Oregon tried to put Catholic schools out of business by insisting on mandatory public education. And in 1925, anti-Catholicism was one of several factors at play in the immigration quotas approved by Congress, which allowed for sometimes ten times as many immigrants from Protestant, Western European nations as the predominantly Catholic ones of southern and Eastern Europe.
Today at the Library of Congress Web site you can read some of the era’s anti-Catholic screeds online, including the 1928 pamphlet “Roman Catholics in America Falsifying History and Poisoning the Minds of Protestant School-children,” which alleged that stealthy Jesuits were sneaking pro-Catholic textbooks into public schools. The timing of the pamphlet was no accident. Alarmed by Al Smith’s candidacy, anti-Catholicism reached a fever pitch that year. Moreover, it was successful: not only did Smith lose to Hoover by a substantial margin, but five states in the “solid South” transformed themselves from Democrat to Republican to avoid the dangerous specter of a Catholic president.
The lesson for Romney is clear, and depressing. Smith tried to run for president before a number of critical shifts occurred in American history that made Catholicism not just accepted, but mainstream. The most significant of these happened in the 1940s, when Catholics proved their American commitments on the battlefield. This was the most direct and unforgettable answer to charges that a Catholic would obey the Vatican before the Constitution. That wasn’t the pope that Catholic Americans were dying for on the beaches of Normandy; it was the United States of America.
JFK benefited from the nation’s appreciation for Catholic loyalty in wartime–a boon that will not be available to Romney–and from a demographic trend that won’t help Romney one bit either. Between a fifth and a quarter of Americans call themselves Catholic (and did in 1960), but just under two percent of Americans self-identify as Mormon, less than a tenth of the Catholic presence.
In short, Romney has his work cut out for him. For a Mormon to win the presidency in 2012–when fewer than one in fifty Americans is LDS and 17 percent of voters surveyed by CNN in October said they would not be likely to support a Mormon candidate–will take a full-on miracle.
But there are silver linings that the candidacy of Romney, like that of Al Smith, will help to pave the way for a successful Mormon candidate for president later down the road. That 17 percent figure? That’s down significantly from the quarter of Americans who reported just a few months earlier that they were not likely to vote for a Mormon. Progress in religious tolerance happens incrementally, but it does happen.
Jana Riess has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University. She is the author of “Flunking Sainthood” and numerous other books, and is currently co-organizing a conference at Columbia on February 3-4 about Mormonism and American politics. She blogs at http://blog.beliefnet.com/flunkingsainthood/.