Thanks to his recent victories in the Michigan and Arizona primaries, Mitt Romney once again has emerged as the strongest contender for the Republican presidential nomination. As such, I think it is appropriate to draw attention to the unique dilemma he will pose to liberals in the event that he is the ultimate victor in Tampa.
Up until now, the non-Protestants who have overcome barriers of religious exclusivity through their presidential nominations have all been liberal Democrats, including Al Smith in 1928 (the first Catholic presidential nominee), John F. Kennedy in 1960 (the first Catholic to actually win the presidency), and Michael Dukakis in 1988 (the first Eastern Orthodox presidential nominee). As such, the challenge for liberals in 2012 will be making sure that we stand firm in our opposition to religious prejudice when the target is Romney, a conservative Republican, instead of one of our own.
The signs so far are not auspicious. Of the 22% of Americans who say they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, self-described liberals outnumber conservatives within that group by three to two (27% to 18%). Their animus seems to stem from the Mormon Church's right-wing political activism on issues like gay marriage and women's rights, a sentiment best summed up in a recent New York Times editorial by author Jane Barnes, who cited it when claiming that the Mormon Church "does not respect the separation of church and state" and that "individual Mormons have obeyed like sheep."
While I agree with Barnes that religious institutions like the Mormon Church should not have as much political pull as they currently possess, and further share her disgust with the homophobia and misogyny underlying the support for Proposition 8 and opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, it is disingenuous to single out Romney's coreligionists for their actions here while not pointing out the comparable activism of dozens of other religious groups (most notably those on the Christian Right). In the end, a politician's faith should only be a disqualifier for higher office if he or she has shown a tendency to be unusually subservient to his or her religious institutions when performing the inherently secular duties of public office. Although no evidence exists that this would be the case for Mitt Romney as an individual (at least no more than it would for candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum), detractors like Barnes assume that because he is a Mormon, he will be abnormally deferential to his faith. The strong argument that can be made about religious beliefs playing too large a role in general in our political life must not be abused to discriminate against one religious group.
This doesn't mean that liberals won't also need to fight anti-Mormon assaults from conservatives. Right-wing prejudice against Romney first became evident during his presidential run in 2008, when Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals admitted that "most evangelicals still regard Mormonism as a cult," a view echoed by Texas Governor Rick Perry's pastor late last year. Such views still clearly hold weight now, as indicated by Romney's consistently poor showing in the primaries among voters who describe the religious beliefs of the candidates as being "very important" to them. A Public Religion Institute Poll even found that 49% of evangelical voters refuse to acknowledge that Mormonism is a Christian denomination. While Romney's numbers would no doubt be even lower among this group were he not widely viewed as the pragmatic alternative to Gingrich and Santorum, the fact that he is still struggling among individuals who place a high premium on religion is indicative of the larger problem.
There are plenty of excellent reasons to oppose Mitt Romney - his plutocratic economic agenda comes foremost to mind, followed closely by his long history of ideological vacillation - and liberals will be remiss in our duty to the American people if we don't guarantee his defeat as a result of them. At the same time, we will be equally remiss in our obligation to our own values if we allow our cause to be marred by the stain of religious bigotry, either by allowing it within our own ranks or refusing to condemn it in our adversaries.
History will be watching us.
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