Religion and the Race for the White House
Republicans plan to “Take Back America.” While Democrats lead a charge “Forward.” In less than sixty days, voters will determine the one path for a divided country. President Barack Obama and Willard “Mitt” Romney reveal in their personal stories and party platforms America’s great diversity and divisions. Religion is part of that diversity and division.
Religion is meant to influence the decision-making of its followers. During the political conventions, every speech ended with “God Bless America.” Interfaith clergy prayed for America. Gospel singer BeBe Winans sang for the Republicans. Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan gave the Democratic benediction. Yet, the candidates’ religious practices have played only a minor role in this campaign.
That may all change. Willard “Mitt” Romney is now the Republican candidate for President of the United States. Voters, in trying to better understand Romney, the man, may need to know more about his religion. In May of 2010, the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB) revealed a 45.5 percent increase in the number of Mormons in America. That growth rate is second only to the 66.7 percent increase in Muslim adherents. The number of Protestants decreased by 12.8 percent while Catholics decreased by 1.7 percent.
The modern presidency offers little religious diversity for a country with thousands of religious practices. President John F. Kennedy was Catholic. Richard Nixon was a Quaker. There has been no known Jewish, atheist, or non-Protestant presidents. Romney is a Mormon. Every religion has elements which would strike a non-follower as puzzling. LDS is no exception.
Mormons believe in the Book of Mormon published by Joseph Smith, in 1830, based on a dream. Mormons believe in the Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) and Pearl of Great Price. The D&C are revelations. Mormons, or members of the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS), believe in Christ. Based on their website FAIRLDS.org, they also believe LDS is the “one true church of Jesus Christ.”
A primary mission of LDS is to “Redeem the Dead” by baptizing anyone who died at any time in history. Women are strongly encouraged to marry early, have children, and stay home. They do not believe in gay marriage or abortion. Mormons believe a family remains together for all eternity. They believe Mormons interacted with Egyptians and Native Americans thousands of years ago.
Mormons were persecuted for their beliefs. Driven from New York, Missouri, and Illinois; their leaders were killed. The barren saltwater flatlands of Utah offered sanctuary to practice their religion, which included polygamy, now banned by law.
Unlike Quakers, Mormons were slave-holders. Although Prophet Joseph Smith received a revelation from God that slavery was not right, Utah enacted slavery in 1852. An 1856 legal case involved Mormon slave-holder, Robert Smith, (no relation to the Prophet) and Bridget “Biddy” Mason, his enslaved African woman. Biddy was forced to walk from Mississippi to California following behind Smith’s cattle. However, California prohibited slavery. Despite Smith’s trickery, Biddy Mason successfully sued for her freedom and went on to become a prosperous businesswoman. A plaque bears her name in downtown Los Angeles.
African-American Mormons were precluded from inter-racial marriage or the priesthood until a 1978 revelation determined racial discrimination was wrong. Today, Mormon missionaries seek to recruit them due to documented high levels of African-American spirituality. However, based on “How to Reach African-Americans” by Marvin Perkins, at FAIRLDS.org, “African-Americans are the least likely to join” their Church. Once recruited, African-Americans leave “the LDS Church at an alarming rate.”
Democrats have avoided the Mormon issue having felt the sting of Muslim rumors during the 2008 presidential campaign. Some voters still believe the President is secretly Muslim. Named Barack Hussein Obama after his deceased father, a Muslim; like the President’s birthplace, it would take little to stir the Muslim question.
The President, a nondenominational Christian, admits he came to his Christian belief later in life. In an infamous rebuff of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, President Obama renounced his membership in Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ where was baptized in 1988. The Obama family attends service at various churches with Evergreen Chapel at Camp David their designated church home.
Although the Framers of the U.S. Constitution limited the role of religion in federal politics, they did not preclude it, altogether. Under Article II, the President-elect may solemnly swear on the Bible, or simply affirm, to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” There is no religious test to hold office.
However, the words of Abraham Lincoln, as quoted by President Barack Obama, are telling: “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere to go.” If religion is the place our next leader of the free world goes for direction, than religion should be a point of examination for voters.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present” and a journalist who covered the recent Republican and Democratic Conventions. Her forthcoming book is “Black Women and the Law.”