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A Mormon for president?

The primary voting season already looks a bit shopworn, yet the first caucuses and elections are many months down the road. A woman, a mixed-race man, and a Mormon are among the dozens of people from both political parties running toward the White House.

Mitt Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the second Mormon to take a run at the White House. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon tradition, ran for president of the United States in 1844. He fell victim to mob violence that June, but Smith's candidacy was more symbolic than serious. Today his spiritual descendant is a serious candidate who has a chance.

Romney's candidacy recalls times when Catholics ran for president. Charles O'Conor was the first Catholic presidential candidate in 1872, receiving only 29,000 votes. Ulysses S. Grant was elected president that year. Al Smith ran as the Democratic Party nominee in 1928, garnering 15 million votes, not enough to surpass Herbert Hoover's 21.5 million. Thirty years later Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the first Catholic to win the presidency. And 44 years later Democrat John Kerry became the third Catholic to lose the race for the White House. His religion seemed to be more problematic for a few members of the American Catholic hierarchy than for the electorate at large.

It took the body politic in this country more than a century to move from an ignorant and bigoted view of Catholicism to a more educated, less prejudicial reaction to Catholic candidates. Might this long, slow move away from Catholic religious prejudice help the Mormon candidate, Mitt Romney? A recent USA Today/Gallup poll shows that 72 percent of voters would vote for a Mormon; 88 percent would vote for a woman; 94 percent for a black nominee. Religious prejudice, regretfully, is still alive and well among some voters.

Could Kennedy's campaign strategy provide an effective template for Romney to allay the fears surrounding a Mormon president? In his September 1960 speech to Houston ministers (which you can see and hear at americanrhetoric. com), Kennedy said: "For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been--and may someday be again--a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist.... Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you."

Kennedy's tomorrow is here today in the candidacy of Mitt Romney, a faithful member of the Mormon church and a Republican candidate for president of the United States. How Romney chooses to educate the American public on his beliefs about church and state is up to him. How the American public chooses to react to this Mormon candidate is up to each one of us.

I hope each and every American--Republican, Democrat, Green, Libertarian, or Independent--rises to the occasion.

PETER GILMOUR ( teaches at the Institute of Pastoral Studies of Loyola University Chicago.
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Title Annotation:odds & ends
Author:Gilmour, Peter
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:May 1, 2007
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