It would be easy to come up with a long list of secular reasons why Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman want to run for president. Romney has personal and familial ambition to burn. He decided against seeking a second term as governor of Massachusetts so he could contest his party’s presidential nomination in ’08. That set him up as heir apparent for next year, given the GOP electorate’s penchant for rewarding runners-up. Never mind beating Obama—just winning the nomination would be an achievement that his late father, automotive CEO and Michigan governor George Romney, never managed.
For his 51 years on this earth, Jon Huntsman Jr., scion of an industrialist father, has bounced around the diplomatic circuit with ambassadorial appointments to Singapore and China. He was twice elected governor of Utah, the second time by a landslide. That’s the sort of resume from which presidential runs are fashioned—and not just the doomed ones. George H.W. Bush had been chief of the U.S. liaison to the People’s Republic in the days before mainland China had an ambassador.
Yet there’s a religious dimension to these presidential aspirants as well. Romney and Huntsman are Mormons. Their creed is the prism through which just about everybody—voters and pundits alike—views these candidates. Can Romney overcome evangelical objections to his latter-day faith? What about liberal sneering over Mormon social conservatism? Will a second LDS adherent in the race make it harder for Romney to hoover up Mormon money and volunteers? Is Huntsman a “Jack Mormon”—a Mormon In Name Only—as some have alleged? Or is he simply unaccustomed to talking about his faith?
Above all, should Mormonism play some role in the press coverage?
Of course it should, if for no other reason than that Mormonism and Mormons are fascinating. Mormonism is America’s most ambitious religion. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints makes serious demands of its members. It sends hordes of young, squeaky-clean, short-term missionaries to Florida, France—where Romney served while his dad lost the GOP nod to Richard Nixon in 1968—and the furthest reaches. It baptizes not just the living but the dead, a practice that creates conflict with people of other faiths who don’t like Mormons laying claim to their forebears.
Mormonism is now a global religion, but its beating heart is in the United States. It was born here, and Mormons have remained stubbornly attached to the place. They follow the example of their religion’s founder, Joseph Smith. His alternative archaeology located the Garden of Eden in Missouri, of all places. Paradise, however, has proved a long time coming: Smith’s religion produced political frictions from day one.
In 1844, Smith himself launched a quixotic campaign for the White House, telling his followers to put proselytizing on hold and start politicking. He ran on a platform of prison reform and federal crackdowns on lawless mobs. But we’ll never know how popular Smith might have been because—and there is no way to damp down the historical irony here—he was murdered by a mob in an Illinois jail before the election.
It’s easy to see why Mormons would want one of their own in the White House. In the 19th century, they were driven out of several states before they established a beachhead in a new western territory. They reinterpreted certain of their beliefs to bring themselves into line with American norms, at the cost of schism—any polygamous “Mormons” you hear of today are shunned by the church. Winning the presidency would finally confer a sense of national acceptance on the Church Formerly Known as a Cult.
Yet that didn’t work out so well for Catholics—or other religious minorities, for that matter. Forget the mythologizing of Camelot: the Kennedy clan played the religion card for cynical purposes only. They brought some of the worst aspects of Irish-American power politics to the national stage, and they became a de facto liberal Catholic aristocracy that the bishops were reluctant to challenge. Evangelicals could tout Jimmy Carter as our first “born again” president—but the less said of that, the better. And in Barack Obama, members of the many African-American churches could claim not only a parishioner but an eloquent and educated convert. Then the Rev. Jeremiah Wright cleared his throat.
Jeremy Lott is editor of RealClearReligion.org and author of William F. Buckley.