After a long and heated campaign process that showcased a variety of Republican hopefuls with strongly held religious views, the presidential race is now down to two candidates and their running mates. The relationship of these figures to the religious dynamics of American culture is fascinating at this moment in history.
Religion has been all over this election cycle. Several of the early Republican candidates were outspoken in their conservative Protestant Christian perspectives. Their connection with the Tea Party movement, which also has expressed conservative Protestant views on social issues, confirmed for many observers that the Republican party was the party of white evangelical Christians. This is not news; the white evangelical voting bloc has been crucial to GOP politics for the past three decades.
Scholarly and journalistic discussion about the place of religion in presidential campaigns and elections usually focuses on how religious affiliation or “values” will affect voting behavior. What strikes me as more interesting in this particular election is the religious makeup of the final candidates: A Mormon, an African American Protestant, and two Roman Catholics who represent different ends of the spectrum of American Catholics. There are no white evangelical Protestants anywhere in the race.
The image of the ruling class of the U.S. as white and Protestant is changing. Protestant churches have been showing declining numbers for years. Census Bureau data released last May reveal that whites account for under half the births in the United States. And just recently the Pew Forum on on Religion and Public Life survey found that Protestants now make up less than half of the U.S. population, while the number of those who identify as unaffiliated with any religion is increasing.
In the space opened up by the relative decline of white Protestants, this presidential election presents a tale of two religions: Mormonism and Islam. I might have said Mormonism and Roman Catholicism, of course: The positions of the two Catholics in the race reveal a great deal about the complicated relationship that Catholics have with American culture and politics, about tensions within the Catholic community and about new political alignments between conservative Catholics and conservative evangelical Protestants that seem to have overcome, at least for pragmatic, strategic purposes, a long history of discord.
But it is the story of Mormons and Muslims that interests me right now.
Whether elected President or not, Mitt Romney -- or his campaign, at least -- has been an instrumental part of the mainstreaming of Mormonism. Since the religion’s nineteenth-century origins, Mormons have been distrusted and persecuted by the wider U.S. population. The early history of the Latter Day Saints is a story of constant movement across the nation’s landscape as one community after another chased Mormons away, often violently. Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs even issued an Executive Order in 1838 calling for all Mormons in the state to be exterminated. (Governor Christopher Bond later rescinded the order – in 1976.)
As recently as a year ago a supporter of one of the other Republican presidential candidates made headlines when he called Mormonism a “cult.” While the candidate repudiated this remark, the comment sparked public debate that made it apparent that the sentiment was not uncommon among evangelical Christians.
Yet today, a Mormon candidate has captured the Republican nomination. His Mormonism was front and center at the Republican National Convention, serving the dual purpose of “humanizing” the candidate and familiarizing non-Mormon America with his religion. As such, the convention’s Mormon spectacle was not only Presidential politics at work, but also in line with the ongoing “I Am a Mormon” campaign of the Church of Latter Day Saints. In ads on television, buses, and billboards, the campaign shows Mormons to be ordinary Americans just like anybody else.
A cynical observer might say that the campaign is politically strategic to help Romney’s chances at election. But put beside the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon and HBO’s successful Big Love, there seems to be a critical energy in the mainstreaming of Mormonism. Romney also played an important role in this process with his 2007 “Faith in America” speech in which he portrayed Mormonism as sharing traditional American values with evangelical Christians, essentially painting Mormonism as simply another denomination of familiar Christianity. Sixty percent of registered voters who know that Romney is Mormon are comfortable with his religion.
Meanwhile, a story continues to circulate that insists that the only Protestant in the race for president is, in fact, not really Christian. Obama’s Christian identity came under attack in the 2008 election campaign when the pastor of his church, Jeremiah Wright, was criticized by Obama’s opponents as being racist and un-American. This election cycle, Obama’s religious identity continues to be a target for controversy: a Pew Forum survey this past July found that 17 percent of registered voters think that President Obama is a Muslim. In context, it is clear that for those who believe this, a Muslim presidential candidate is not a cause for celebration. Especially striking, 34 percent of conservative Republicans believed this (up sharply from 16 percent in 2008). Among those who believe that Obama is Muslim, 65 percent are uncomfortable with his religion.
Of course, President Obama is not a Muslim. This is not a story about facts, but about feelings and significations. Just as Mormonism is becoming more mainstream and acceptable, Islam is being thrown under the bus. There is a curious and dangerous assertion of “Otherness” in the linking of the only Protestant candidate, who also happens to be Black, with Islam, which for many Americans continues to play its long-running role as the antithesis of American values.
Among the stories of religion that this Presidential election season tells, the story of Mormons and Muslims is one of both hope and despair. It shines a light on the ability of a long-persecuted religious community to find mainstream acceptance, even as it raises a question about whether we as a nation require a religious scapegoat.