There’s been a lot of buzz in recent days about Mormons in politics – and the claim that church members, long the victims of discrimination in the political world, may be coming into their own in much the same way as Jews have entered the political big leagues in recent decades.
Former Mass. Governor Mitt Romney remains a strong contender for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination; Jon Huntsman Jr. , a former Utah governor and now U.S. ambassador to China, is widely expected to make a run for the nomination.
In today’s Washington Post On Faith blog, Orthodox Union public policy director Nathan Diament wrote that raising the issue of faith for these candidates can be appropriate – as it was in 2000, when Sen. Joe Lieberman, then a Democrat, ran as the party’s vice-presidential candidate, the first Jew on a major party ticket.
“[T]here may well be unfamiliarity, ignorance really, with Mormonism and it is appropriate for voters to ask questions and seek answers, from political leaders and from the media, to enlighten people about Mormonism and how it might serve to shape the values and thinking of a candidate for the presidency,” Diament wrote. “The very same process took place with regard to Orthodox Judaism when Al Gore nominated Joe Lieberman for the vice presidency in 2000. The day after Gore announced his selection of Lieberman, I published an essay in the Post’s Op Ed page to explain key aspects of Lieberman’s faith and practice.”
There may be a difference, though. While anti-Semitism remains an ever present hum in the background of American politics, anti-Mormonism is much more overt in some circles – starting with big segments of the evangelical Protestant community, where Mormonism is considered a dangerous pseudo-Christian cult.
That leads to this paradox: most prominent Mormon politicians (Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, is an exception), fall on the conservative Republican side of the political spectrum.
But a big part of the GOP base resides in an evangelical community where distrust of Mormons is the strongest. The question is, which will prove more politically influential: the Mormons’ appeal to conservative social and political values, or theological perspectives see Mormonism as a threat to other modes of Christianity?
I’m not sure the Lieberman example should be a source of reassurance for Huntsman, Romney and others.
It’s true that despite some worries in the Jewish community, Lieberman’s Orthodox Judaism was a non-factor – and in many cases a political plus – in his 2000 vice presidential run.
But there’s been a significant turn among evangelicals in recent years; many now venerate Israel and respect Jews, although it’s not always clear how much of that admiration is based on Bible prophecies that have a grisly last chapter, at least if you’re Jewish.
Many of those same evangelicals who think Jews are cool share the religious distrust of Mormonism. So in some ways today’s rising Mormon politicians may face more obstacles than Lieberman faced in 2000.
One other fact illuminates this discussion: Jews and Mormons are each about 1.7 percent of the overall U.S. population. But Jews are 7.3 percent of the current Congress, while Mormons are only 2.8 percent. So in Congressional terms, at least, Mormons are lagging behind Jews. On the other hand: there are two Mormon politicians who could be serious presidential contenders next year. Where are the Jews?