Is America ready for its first Mormon president?

The YouTube clip of Mitt Romney being questioned about his Mormon faith by a conservative radio host, which this week went viral, was no doubt an unwelcome surprise for the candidate’s campaign team, prompting voters to ponder just days before they go to the polls exactly what it would mean to have a leader of the uniquely American religion in the White House.

In the clip, Romney’s unease at having to defend a faith that believes Christ visited America 2,000 years ago is clear… despite being filmed in 2007, long before he was even a Republican candidate.

Despite Romney’s best efforts, it seems religion is the one issue presidential candidates cannot avoid. As noted by Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British Ambassador to the United States, in European politics “God does not even get a walk-on part… In America he is centre-stage, wherever you place yourself in the political spectrum”.

Team Mitt has certainly done its best during the campaign to push faith itself, rather than the particulars of the Church, leaving their candidate to emphasise “shared values” over denomination.

Speaking to the Huffington Post UK, Dr Uta Balbier, the Director of the Institute of North American studies at King’s College London, argued that Romney has been successful to this end, and has “established himself as a person of faith in the eyes of the American voters”. As such, Romney has managed to make “the general perception of his faith more important than his belonging to the LDS church”. By emphasising Mormonism into just another branch of Christianity, Romney has neatly sidestepped the issue.

One can speculate whether the YouTube clip will undo Romney’s clever evasions come Tuesday night. However, that the former Governor of Massachusetts was even able to secure the Republican nomination speaks well of a religious pluralism that the US is rarely given credit for (albeit a win aided by a paucity of credible candidates from the dominant Evangelical wing of the GOP, as well as Romney’s large bank balance).

Should a Mormon beat Obama, would that not represent a victory for diversity of American society, an openness already emphasised in the election of an African American in 2008 and a Catholic in 1960? Perhaps, though some will no doubt see it as a testament to Republicans voters’ willingness to overlook Romney’s Mormonism (or at least to have their concerns subsumed by an often rabid desire to see the incumbent serve only a single term).

But why should Romney’s religion be so controversial, especially as the LDS, a 19th century off-shoot of Christian Protestantism, represents a modern American success story, with the religion currently boasting more than 13 million members worldwide?

The faith certainly has a chequered past, particularly in the practice of polygamy. Yet polygamy – the one certain fact everyone knows about Mormonism – was left behind by the main church more than a century ago and is now only practised by some of the movement’s more fundamentalist sects. As Romney noted in a recent 60 Minutes episode: “I can’t think of anything more awful.”

Since the days of its birth, the Church has undergone gradual change, with many of its rougher foundational edges softened by schism and secularisation, resulting in the seemingly more “benign” variant practised by Romney and his contemporaries today (although it is important to note that it wasn’t until the ’70s that the Church ended its prohibition on non–white members).

The LDS has its odd beliefs – the Garden of Eden was geographically in the US and that Christ will rule from Missouri upon his return – but Mormonism is hardly the only religion to hold bizarre revelations (the evangelical rapture or the return of the 12th Imam are no less inexplicable).

That’s not to say the modern LDS church is a bastion of transparency and openness – secrecy and obfuscation remain, particularly when dealing with the outside world. Non-members aren’t allowed into Mormon temples, while members are threatened with excommunication for discussing the faith’s rituals or theology.

Again, witness Romney’s unease when pushed to discuss the finer points of his faith or the rarity by which elders in the Church offer insight (the European LDS church was contacted for this article but would not comment due to “political neutrality”).

Yet secrecy alone is unlikely to be enough for one-in-five Americans to say they would not vote a Mormon for President as highlighted in a recent Gallup poll.

In a recent interview with CNN, Russell Ballard, an Apostle in the LDS, said it would be “misguided” if a politician tried to proselytize his religion while in office. Yet herein sits the problem for Romney: there’s the suspicion that a Mormon president would take direction from his Church rather than his office, echoing the anti-Catholic concerns surrounding Kennedy’s campaign in 1960 when critics argued that the Pope would be able to exert ‘foreign’ influence on the Camelot coterie.

There is also the Mormon belief that America is divinely blessed, so much so that church members profess that Christ actually visited the US two millennia ago, a notion heretical to Christians of other stripes. This has led many Americans, particularly conservative evangelicals, to dismiss the LDS as a cult, albeit based on the hypercritical notion their brand of Christianity is somehow lent authenticity due to its antiquity.

For Balbier, two things have helped Romney reduce Christian concerns over his faith: “His choice of the ultra-conservative Catholic Paul Ryan made the ticket more appealing for conservative Christian voters and the fact that Billy Graham, one of the most influential Christian evangelists in the US offered his endorsement.”

So if Romney wins, is it a victory for religious pluralism in the US?

“Religious pluralism [in the US] is functioning to an impressive degree,” said Balbier, “but from a European perspective, the acid test would be the presidential campaign of a Muslim candidate”.

Perhaps a Muslim candidate in four years time (hopefully running against a Trump-Palin ticket), but whatever happens on Tuesday night, the 2012 election has added yet another layer to the increasingly complex and often paradoxical relationship between a nation founded on principles designed to limit religion, and its citizens’ ardent desire to practise it.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

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The certain world of Michele Bachmann

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week revealed that Michele Bachmann had consolidated her position as the second place candidate behind Mitt Romney in the race for the Republican Presidential nomination. According to the figures, the senator from Minnesota now commands 14 per cent of the national vote, near doubling her support amongst Republicans in the last month. Yet despite a solid showing in the recent CNN debate, her rise remains as baffling to many Americans as it does to those monitoring events from further afield.

In a week in which the scandal engulfing the UK saw the main political parties round on Rupert Murdoch hoping that condemnation leads to disassociation, it is heartening to know that we can nearly always rely on our politicians to do what’s in their own best interests. Ideological motivations and the occasional twinge of altruism aside, convictions in Westminster seem to bend according to the prevailing wind.

For Bachmann, however, public office seems less inspired by the trappings of power and status and more informed by the certainty of her faith. This is politics as an extension of religious belief, with her candidacy a national platform on which to evangelise the Christian message.

Faith and politics have long been bedfellows across the Atlantic, with every president since Abraham Lincoln paying lip service to The Almighty. It’s a sage move; as recently as 2007 a Gallup Poll suggested that more than 50 per cent of the franchise would not vote for a non-believing presidential candidate.

Many have used this to their advantage, most recently Sarah Palin who frequently used scripture to bolster a populist message that now manifests itself in the occasional Tweet or Facebook update. However, even the most ardent Palin devotee would find it difficult to argue that the book-hawking, reality TV star was in it for anything other than personal gain.

Bachmann, though, seems different, espousing a brand of politics built on an unerring and literal belief in biblical teaching that, until recently, would have discounted her from a serious tilt at the White House. It’s still early in the campaign, and her recent surge may well deflate. Then again, it may not.

The senator’s intellectual underpinnings are explored by Michelle Goldberg in her recent profile in The Daily Beast, summarised by “a biblical world view” that instructs her “entire perception of reality”. This is manifested most noticeably in her campaigns against abortion and gay marriage. Only last month, she argued that her challenge to legal abortion does not exclude cases of “rape, incest, or the life of the mother.” In regards to gay marriage, she has built a career rallying against her perceived homosexual threat, abridged to such choice statements as:

“Don’t misunderstand. I am not here bashing people who are homosexuals, who are lesbians, who are bisexual, who are transgender. We need to have profound compassion for people who are dealing with the very real issue of sexual dysfunction in their life and sexual identity disorders.”

Speaking on same sex marriage and the gay community:

“This is a very serious matter, because it is our children who are the prize for this community, they are specifically targeting our children.”

Aside from a few ramblings on chastity from Ann Widdecombe, religion has remained taboo in modern British political life, so much so that Tony Blair had to wait to leave office before he could declare himself a converted Catholic. In contrast, the influence of evangelicalism on the US political stage has been steadily growing since the Seventies, culminating in the election of George W. Bush, propelled to office twice on the support of the faithful.

The election of Barack Obama was a backwards step for their cause however, in the years since he took office the religious right has regained ground by forging an alliance with the equally active Tea Party movement. Fiscal conservatives merging with social conservatives under the banner of what some commentators are calling “Teavangicals”. As Ed Kilgore points out in a recent article for The New Republic:

“Christian Right elites, for their own peculiar reasons, have become enthusiastic participants in the drive to combat Big Government and its enablers in both parties. It’s no accident that one red-hot candidate for president, Michele Bachmann, and a much-discussed likely candidate, Rick Perry, each have one foot planted in the Christian Right and another in the Tea Party Movement.”

It should be noted that Mike Huckabee’s withdrawal from the race and Palin’s no-show has left Bachmann the most high profile evangelical candidate by default, while the anti-establishment fervour produced by the economic bailout will no doubt have bolstered the senator who flaunts her grass root connections every time she steps atop a stand, soap box or podium.

Still, that a candidate with beliefs so entrenched as to openly espouse sexual bigotry and the denial of abortion even in the case of rape has got so far should provide a stark reminder that however corrupt, deceitful and self-serving our own politicians appear to be, at least we don’t have to deal with the blind certainty of faith.

This first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Mitt, Michele and the pizza to go…

The race for the 2012 Republican nomination got underway last night as the big hitters of the GOP took part in a CCN-organised debate in New Hampshire. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann provided the sparring, giving snapshot answers on questions ranging from the economy to abortion to Libya. As is the form in the US, actual debate proved rare, with the emphasis on providing pithy, coherent sentences and, more importantly, avoiding mistakes. Past campaigns have fallen foul of the faux pas. As such, each candidate took their place at the podium hostage to a potential knock-out blunder.

Fortunately, the broadcast ended without gaffe, slip-up or bungle. The winners and losers, however, were clear. Former Massachusetts governor and early frontrunner Mitt Romney consolidated his position with a presidential performance that had as much to do with his own assurance as it had with his opponents’ failure to land a glove. Going after the frontrunner offers the lesser-known candidates a chance to improve their profile. Instead, there was deference, most strikingly from Tim Pawlenty. The Minnesota Governor had attacked Romney on the Sunday talk shows over his “socialised” healthcare system in Massachusetts, drawing a parallel between that and the much-despised Obamacare. The chair offered Pawlenty the chance to confront Romney to his face. Romney glared, Pawlenty demurred. Similarly, Rick Santorum, a strong pro-life candidate, failed to take the Mormon candidate to task over his past dalliance with the pro-choice agenda. The former Pennsylvania senator remained a peripheral figure throughout much of the evening.

The unexpected beneficiary of the debate was Newt Gingrich. The portly former speaker looked like Elvis circa ‘77 and, on the back of a mass resignation by his campaign staff this weekend it appeared the thrice-married family values candidate was simply there to make up the numbers. On the contrary, he provided a performance of bluster and charisma, as well as offering a surprisingly nuanced argument when it came to immigration.

The one unsavoury moment for Gingritch came courtesy of Herman Cain. When asked to defend his recent assertion that he wouldn’t hire a Muslim to work in his administration, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO delivered a slice of verbal confusion that concluded with potential Muslim applicants being subjected to an interview to prove their allegiance to old Glory. Having watched Herman descend slowly into a hole, Gingritch duly followed with a rant that seemingly justified loyalty tests for US citizens. A whiff of Joe McCarthy, or at least that of his drink-sodden corpse, wafted through the auditorium. It was not a conversation that reached out to the moderate arm of the party, let alone any wavering Democrats. Cain, who in a previous debate hosted by Fox News had emerged the unlikely victor, looked anything but presidential. When asked for political analysis on Libya, he turned to his family for inspiration. “To paraphrase my grandmother… it’s a mess.” Not exactly Robert Fisk. The Georgia businessman did look assured on one question – whether he preferred “deep crust or thin?”

Ron Paul trotted out his usual isolationist rhetoric and even parodied himself with a few quips about The Federal Reserve, his default topic. He’s a game old goose, the congressman who enjoys huge popular support throughout the college campuses. His idealism, particularly in regards to the constitution, was in contrast with the more prosaic offerings from the other candidates. He is always enjoyable to watch and one of the most interesting players on the American political stage, but as always his brand of Libertarianism provided nothing more than a sideshow, and the Texas congressman will no doubt remain a fringe figure within US conservatism.

Another character on the periphery, Michele Bachmann, does appear to have come out of the debate with increased standing, offering up several forceful points that would have no doubt appealed to the grassroots and her Tea Party faithful. She’s got a chequered past, pronouncing views on evolution 100-years out of date, as well as helping to fan the “death panel” propaganda during the Obamacare debate. Her thoughts on homosexuality are a matter of record. However, there’s no denying that she has a large and growing fan-base, while the event offered her the chance to present a coherent, albeit hard-right message, while standing alongside some of the big players within the Republican establishment. Comparisons with Sarah Palin are inevitable, but the gulf between the two is clear. Bachmann isn’t Palin-light – they share many views – but the Minnesota congresswoman is far better prepared and far more articulate, delivering a consistent narrative, the type that Palin found it so hard to enunciate during the 2008 campaign. Whereas Palin took refuge in naked provincialism and borderline racism, Bachmann managed to deliver her brand of ultra-conservatism without looking completely insane. There seems little point in the former Governor of Alaska throwing her black Cole Haan boots into the ring for 2012 while Bachmann’s in the running, though as one CNN pundit astutely pointed out, “Palin may yet play kingmaker”.

Each candidate managed to throw a few punches Obama’s way particularly with regards to the economy and rising unemployment. However, if the President was watching the debate, he would have done so sitting comfortably on Pennsylvania Avenue. Despite the frosty economic climate currently chilling the US, his lease on the White House looks secure for some years yet. The problem for the GOP remains winning Tea Party support alongside the more moderate Republicans. Could a Romney/Bachmann ticket unite the party’s increasingly disparate ranks? It seems like an unlikely marriage, but with US politics, just about anything is possible.

This first appeared in The IndependentThe original article can be found here.