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Mitt Romney: The Mormons' JFK?

Megan Singson |
February 23, 2012 | 9:16 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter



Mitt Romney (Creative Commons)
Mitt Romney (Creative Commons)
Professor David Campbell from the University of Notre Dame shared his analysis of the role of religion in politics with his lecture “Religion in a Time of Politics” on Tuesday night at the University of Southern California’s Davidson Conference Center. Campbell discussed religious tolerance in the United States and compared Mitt Romney’s current presidential campaign as a Mormon to John F. Kennedy’s campaign as a Catholic in 1960.

The audience consisted of some students but mostly the elderly including nuns and priests. The atmosphere in the room was one of curiosity but also respect. One Catholic priest said to someone sitting next to him, “I really have a great respect for Mormons. We have different beliefs...but I’m interested to learn more about them today.” 

Father Jim Heft opened the discussion talking about the Catholic Church’s struggle to accept religious freedom in America, something that took over 100 years. “Things moved slowly for the Catholic Church,” Heft said, “we trust they won’t move as slowly for the Mormons but we’ll see what happens.” 

Before delving into the issues that Mormons face, Campbell first drew upon statistics from his book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us to analyze how religious tolerance has grown in America. According to his surveys, the majority of Americans, 54 percent of whom are Evangelical Protestants, believe that morally good people of other religions can go to heaven even if they’re not Christian. 

 To explain the reasoning behind these results, Campbell described “Aunt Susan.” Aunt Susan represents the most morally good person in someone’s life, but Aunt Susan can’t go to heaven because she is of a different religion. “When faced with a choice between Aunt Susan and their theology, almost all Americans go for Aunt Susan,” Campbell said. According to Campbell, Americans have learned to be more religiously tolerant after making personal connections with people of different religions-- something he calls “religious bridge-building.” 

However, Campbell explained that the Mormon community doesn’t have these bridges to other religions due to their remote geographic locations and exclusive communities. Campbell said that because of this many Americans are not familiar with the Mormon faith or are only loosely acquainted with Mormons and therefore unable to make the strong personal connection that creates a bridge between religions. The misconception and isolation of Mormons are what Campbell believes make religion an issue for Mitt Romney. 

Before discussing Romney’s campaign, Campbell took the audience back 84 years to the 1928 election in which former New York Gov. Al Smith ran for president as the first Catholic to win a major-party nomination. But fears that Smith would serve his religion before his country brought about his failure. However, 32 years later another Catholic, John F. Kennedy, ran in the 1960 presidential election and was successful.  

Kennedy did not fall prey to his religion because of his strong belief in separation of church and state. Campbell  showed a clip of Kennedy’s speech given in Houston in which he separated his religious beliefs and his political plans saying, “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.” 

Kennedy won the election making him the first Catholic president of the United States. According to Campbell’s research, prior to Kennedy’s campaign about 30 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a Catholic. The statistics were the same if a Mormon candidate was to run for president. However, acceptance of Catholics have increased significantly since Kennedy was elected but for Mormons it has not. What Campbell speculates is that if Kennedy was able to bring acceptance of Catholics, Romney could to do the same for Mormons.

 In 2007, Romney seemed to take a similar stance as Kennedy when he spoke of his Mormon faith. Romney, too, said that he would consider the interests of the country before the interests of his religion. However, Romney also stated, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind.” 

 Campbell noted that this boldly religious statement would not have been expected in 1960, but it was necessary for Romney to state this in today’s political atmosphere. Campbell believes that political issues now are “no longer divided along the old lines of religious denomination...now it is people who are more religious...versus those who are less religious.” By firmly sticking by his religion, Romney appeals to those who are more religious. 

Entwined in this issue are partisan ideologies as well, with Republicans typically wanting more religious involvement in politics and Democrats wanting the two to be separate. By speaking proudly of his religious beliefs, Romney may appeal to those Republicans who want religion and politics to be intermingled, even if they aren’t Mormon. “Romney’s campaign is a test of our tolerance,” Campbell said. Campbell believes that Romney’s campaign will keep Americans talking about religion, giving them a better understanding of other religions, including Mormonism.

In concluding the lecture, Campbell raised two questions, “Does the Mormon Moment mean it is Romney’s year? Will he be the Mormon’s John F. Kennedy...or will Romney turn out to be Al Smith?” 




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