The Kennedy brothers; John, Robert and Ted

Romney’s ‘Mormon moment’ a test of tolerance in United States

By  Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special
  • November 4, 2012

WINDSOR, ONT. - Much has changed since the controversial 1960 campaign when John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, ran for the American presidency.

For starters, the United States has become both more secular and more tolerant in accepting non-Protestant religious groups, such as Roman Catholics. At the same time, the country has become more politically partisan and seen religion take on a greater role in electoral politics than it did 50 years ago, according to Dr. David Campbell, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.

“Kennedy faced at least a potential stained glass ceiling,” said Campbell, an expert on religion, politics and civic engagement. The native of Medicine Hat, Alta. was speaking at Windsor’s Assumption University as part of a series examining the current presidential campaign.

He said that in becoming America’s first Catholic president, Kennedy overcame the obstacle of his religion after a historic speech in which he declared “Catholicism will not guide me” in policy decisions.

Today, a Catholic candidate such as John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race, or vice-president Joe Biden, might be questioned because they aren’t “Catholic enough” on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Catholics are now fully accepted in the political mainstream. But according to public polling, that’s not the case for candidates from all other religions, including Buddhists, Muslims and Mormons. Fifty-two years after Kennedy, Mitt Romney is attempting to become America’s first Mormon president.

Campbell said that “almost everyone” has a family relation, friend or neighbour who is Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, and recognizes them as “good people.” But that’s not the case for smaller faith groups. For Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, “that’s a problem.”

Campbell said that while Jews, for example, make up about the same proportion of the population as Mormons, they have integrated into society over the years by “building bridges” to other faiths. That isn’t the case with Mormonism, which Campbell says has a huge degree of internal “bonding” or “sticking together.”

Although Mormonism might not be fully tolerated, Campbell said religion generally plays a more important role in American politics, particularly among the political right.

“Religion has become a very powerful force shaping how Americans vote,” he said.

So, Campbell said, Romney has to walk a fine line between showing he fits into mainstream America without alienating the Republican base, which includes many Evangelicals.

Campbell said Romney has echoed Kennedy by emphatically declaring that his church will not “exert influence on presidential decisions.” In the second presidential debate Romney affirmed his belief in Jesus Christ and implied that voter acceptance of his faith will be a “test of our tolerance.”

The presidential campaign is “Romney’s moment,” Campbell said. If the Republican is elected, his Morman faith, like Catholicism 50 years ago, could start to be recognized as a more conventional religion.

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