America quietly observed a major milestone in its history Tuesday night when Mitt Romney became the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major political party.
The achievement comes four years after a spate of firsts, culminating with the election of the first black president. This one has been greeted with little fanfare. And that is just how Romney and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints want it.
But whether they want to call attention to it or not, Romney’s achievement is historic. Almost 200 years after the founding of Mormonism by Joseph Smith, who himself ran for president to call attention to his flock’s persecution, Romney’s nomination signals how far his faith, and the country’s acceptance of it, has come.
“If you look at it in a historical perspective, it’s absolutely incredible,” said Richard Lyman Bushman, a leading Mormon scholar and longtime acquaintance of Romney’s. “A century and a half ago, Mormons were detested as a people as well as a religion. They were thought to be primitive and crude. And now to have someone overcome all the lingering prejudice, that’s a milestone.”
Romney’s campaign, which has been reluctant to address his faith, did not immediately respond to emails asking for comment about his achievement.
The church, which has taken pains this year to stay out of the presidential fray, offered a muted response.
“The church’s neutrality in political campaigning is well established, and we won’t be making any statement today,” said church spokesman Michael Otterson.
If the silence serves a political purpose for Romney, it serves a pastoral one for the church. Mormonism is one of the world’s fastest-growing religions, with as many adherents in the United States as Judaism. Still, about one in three Americans say they have an unfavorable view of the Mormon church, according to a March Bloomberg News poll.
There may be no better face for a church on the rise than a president, but for a faith trying to expand its reach and demonstrate diversity, getting wrapped up in partisan politics carries some risk.
Romney has only occasionally addressed his religion over the past year, touching on it primarily to portray himself generically as a man of faith and to draw similarities between his beliefs and those of other Christians, some of whom view Mormonism as outside traditional Christianity and akin to a cult.
Romney’s emphasis on the common threads were at the heart of a speech he made this month at Liberty University, an evangelical Christian college.
“Central to America’s rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life,” Romney said in his May 12 commencement address. “From the beginning, this nation has trusted in God, not man. … There is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.”
Romney is not the first candidate to walk a thin line on religion, though his efforts to appeal to evangelicals with his spirituality, while gliding over theological differences, has required some acrobatics.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy was forced to assuage fears that he was more loyal to his Catholic faith than the country. As far back as 1908, William Howard Taft fended off attacks on his Unitarianism. But in 1976, Jimmy Carter emphasized his “born again” bona fides as an antidote to the spiritually trying time after Watergate and the Vietnam War.
If Tuesday’s groundbreaking moment fell softly, it is partly because the echoes of 2008 have not faded. Not only did the campaign lead to the elevation of Obama, but Hillary Clinton nearly shattered the glass ceiling in her effort to win the Democratic nomination and Sarah Palin made history as the first female Republican vice-presidential candidate.
But it is also because Romney has long been laying the groundwork for this moment.
This is his second run for president, and his Mormon faith has been a source of curiosity, with journalists probing his years as a bishop and examining his relationship with church leaders in Salt Lake City.
Many say it was inevitable that a Mormon would one day reach this benchmark. Founded in the United States, Mormonism is a deeply American religion and many of its adherents believe the nation’s founding documents were divinely inspired. Though the church tries to remain neutral in elections, Mormons are encouraged to be politically active and have long participated at every level of government.
They have also been active in both parties, though polls show the vast majority of Mormons are politically conservative.
In 1843, Smith asked all the declared candidates to come to the defense of Mormons, who had suffered persecution in Missouri and elsewhere. Unsatisfied with the response, he ran for president in 1844, essentially as a protest candidate. He was killed that year in Illinois.
A century ago the notion of a Mormon occupying the presidency was inconceivable.
“This is in a way a natural development in the history of Mormonism,” said Jon Meacham, a journalist who has written extensively on politics and religion. “Joseph Smith and the leaders of the church clearly saw America as the new Jerusalem, and therefore for an adherent of the faith to have such a central role in the life of a nation would have been something they dreamed of.”