August 31, 2012, by Alex Smith
Why it matters that Mitt Romney is a Mormon
After being postponed for 24 hours by Hurricane Isaac, the Republican National Convention held this week in Tampa, Florida, recovered from its shaky start and formally nominated Mitt Romney as this year’s Republican presidential candidate. He will now face Barack Obama in the general election scheduled for 6 November.
As the first Mormon ever to secure the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency, this marks a significant moment in US political history. Going right back to the founding of their party in 1854, the Republicans have had a long and problematic history with the Mormon Church, which is officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS).
A history of distrust
In pre-Civil War America, the party of Abraham Lincoln was swept up by wider societal anxieties about the perceived influence of Mormonism. In particular, the institution of polygamy, which was widely practised by LDS Church members at the time, attracted criticism from Republicans, many of whom championed a moral crusade to rid society of a ‘holy trinity’ of moral ills that also included alcholism and slavery.
Mormons were equally distrustful of the Republican Party, most supporting the Democratic Party during the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, however, the social conservatism of many Mormon voters contributed to a broader political realignment that resulted in the Republican Party becoming the major beneficiary of their electoral support.
And although the mainstream LDS Church rejected polygamy as an institution over a century ago, many conservative evangelical churches continue to view Mormonism with suspicion. That Mitt Romney prevailed in the Republican primary is therefore politically significant because there are lingering doubts amongst his Party’s conservative Christian base about his faith.
However, it would be unfair to caricature Romney as a mouthpiece for American Mormonism. It could be argued that what makes him most problematic from the perspective of the Christian Right is his legislative record as a moderate (some might say ‘liberal’) Republican when he was state governor of Massachusetts in the mid-2000s.
Romney’s legislative record
In that role, he supported abortion rights for women, funding for embryonic stem cell research and signed into Massachusetts’ law recognition of gay marriage – one of the first American states, in fact, to do so. In 2006, he also implemented a health reform law that is sometimes called ‘Romneycare’, which introduced near-universal health care coverage for Massachusetts’ residents. Endorsed at the time by the late Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, some argue that this legislation helped pave the way for the 2010 Affordable Care Act – or ‘Obamacare’ – which the Republican Party has pledged to repeal.
Romney’s legislative achievements do not necessarily sit comfortably with either the Mormon Church or conservative Christians. In this regard, he shares much in common with his father, George Romney, who as governor of Michigan made a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.
George Romney was an interesting candidate in part because he strongly supported civil rights despite the considerable racism of the LDS Church towards African Americans in the 1960s. During his campaign, he toured seventeen of the nation’s poorest ghettos and inner-city neighbourhoods in an effort to raise the profile of disadvantaged black communities in national policy debates. His efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Only delgates from Michigan and the Mormon stronghold Utah backed him and Richard Nixon went on to win the nomination. (The rest, as they say, is history.)
To win this year’s primary, Mitt Romney has had to embrace many rightwing policy positions that would have been anathema to his father as well as himself while he was governor of Massachusetts. These contradictions – between his moderate/progressive legislative record from the mid-2000s on the one hand and the social conservatism of both the Christian Right and the LDS Church on the other – persist.
Now that he has secured the presidential nomination, Romney may want to try to reassure moderate voters by putting distance between himself and hard-right conservatives. But he also needs to keep the latter enthused so that they will turn out and support him in the general election.
It will be hard for Romney to keep both these constituencies happy, as recent political events would indicate. As Hurricane Isaac bore down on the Republican National Convention this week, Mitt Romney found himself caught in another storm, this one being of the media variety and emanating from the American Midwest rather than the Caribbean.
On 19 August, a St Louis television station broadcast an interview with Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for a US Senate vacancy in Missouri. In the interview, he was asked whether he supported his party’s call – adopted as part of the Republican policy platform for this year’s election – for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Akin’s response is now infamous:
‘If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.’
Unsurprisingly, these comments provoked criticism and outrage, especially from feminist bloggers, media commentators and pro-choice activist groups. The Republican National Committee has responded by pulling over $5 million of funding from Akin’s campaign, writing it off as ‘lost’ to the Democratic incumbent, who is now rumoured to have a 10-point lead.
Mitt Romney has described Akin’s comments as ‘offensive and wrong’ and ‘damaging to women’. But he still has a problem.
In support of his divisive views, Akin cites the widely discredited medical ‘evidence’ of the controversial anti-abortion doctor Joh
n Willke of the Life Issues Institute. Willke is the author of several best-selling books, including A Handbook on Abortion (published in 1971), which argue that due to a number of physiological factors, women rarely become pregnant after sexual assault. The science underpinning Dr Willke’s books, most of which are little known outside of anti-abortion circles, has been widely discredited by gynaecology professors throughout the USA.
For Mitt Romney, Dr Willke presents a particular problem because the latter has publicly backed him for the presidency, despite his support for abortion in cases of rape and incest. Indeed, in 2007, Romney described Willke as ‘an important surrogate’ for his views on abortion and family planning.
Over the next two months, the Democrats will no doubt seek to further exploit these tensions amongst Republican voters in the run-up to the election.