04/09/2012 07:29 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

The Presidency and the First American Religion

In the first half of the 19th century, and probably as early as 1820, upon this continent was born a new religion. Culturally grown from the great awakenings and the desire to experience the divine first hand, not merely as an intellectual exercise or a cultural legacy, Mormonism, founded by Joseph Smith, took root in America. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as it was named in 1838, is, perhaps, the first truly American religion, making the Americas -- not just the old world or the Middle East -- the geographic setting of miracles, divine visitations and the promised land. Further, Mormonism values quintessential American traits of industry, community service, independence, thrift and virtue (to name a few).

Since Smith first began taking his followers to the West, American presidents have had to consider the political effects of this new religion, especially as they dealt with the ramifications of polygamy, militias, lynch mobs and Utah's statehood. Yet, only 14 years after Utah entered the Union, a prominent Mormon, J. Reuben Clark, was appointed as U.S. State Department Solicitor, later becoming Undersecretary of State and then Ambassador to Mexico. Since that time at least five members of the LDS church have served in cabinet positions, and Joseph Smith actually declared himself a candidate for President of the United States in 1844. While less than 3 percent of Congress is LDS, Mormons have been a quiet and persistent presence in American politics. In many ways Mitt Romney's presidential campaign may be a political coming of age for Mormons in America.

As of this writing, Romney can lay claim to about 568 delegates to the Republican Convention, while his nearest challenger, Rick Santorum, claims fewer than half that number. So while Romney has nowhere near the required delegates to claim a victory (he needs about 600 more, and there are only 1,200 still in play), it would be nearly impossible for Santorum to win the nomination before the convention. In other words, Romney will most likely be the first LDS presidential candidate with the support of a major political party behind him, this coming almost 200 years after the birth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But for a member of a young, minority religion whose founder was murdered, whose way of life was outlawed, whose members destroyed printing presses and formed their own militias (all within the United States), for Romney to rise to a place where he could reasonably become the leader of the most powerful country in the world is literally unheard of either in recent history or perhaps even in the history of all world religions.

So what should we know about this religion, this new culture born on our own continent? A quick historical glance shows a troublesome relationship between the LDS church and government. First, the church leader Brigham Young led his followers to the Great Salt Lake in order to both protect them from persecution and to establish a literal theocracy. To this day, the temple square in Salt Lake City is the center of all things (the streets are numbered from the temple), and the church purchased a downtown block outside its doors less than two decades ago, closing it to traffic and cutting off a venue for free speech and personal expression (in 2009 a gay couple was arrested for trespassing after sharing a kiss on this Main Street block). Alcohol restrictions in Utah are some of the tightest in the country (beer sold in grocery stores, restaurants and many bars has to have an alcohol content of 3.2 percent or less), and not long ago Mormon state legislators threatened to revoke all high school extracurricular clubs, rather than let there exist one Gay-Straight Alliance on school grounds. Drive on Utah highways and you will see an image of a beehive, a symbol that comes directly from Brigham Young; the only other state with highway signs that connect to a religious past is the vaguely Native American New Mexico highway sign.

Despite what many LDS political leaders in Utah have done in the past to maintain the connections between the LDS church and government, the church's statements are very clear about the separation of church and state. The church explicitly refuses to allow its buildings to be used for partisan political events (thus we will not see Romney speaking as a politician from a church ward), unlike what we have seen in the last 30 years with evangelical Christian churches that invite presidential candidates to address their congregations. Interestingly, the LDS church also recognizes that its members who are political leaders will take positions that disagree with one another "or even with a publicly stated church position," but that it encourages those politicians to make choices that best serve their constituents. This is in stark contrast to the several American Catholic Bishops who stated during the 2004 presidential election that any Catholic politician who supported abortion should not be allowed to receive the Eucharist. Of course, these are the official statements of the LDS church, and it has to be recognized that many other churches make similar statements, but sometimes churches and their members act in ways other than official statements.

So what then can we say about religion and a Romney presidency? During his time as governor of Massachusetts, Romney proved that he was willing to follow policies that might infringe on religious freedom in order to serve the larger constituency. In 2005 for example, Romney overturned an exemption for Catholic hospitals that would have allowed them to refuse emergency contraception to its patients, saying "my personal view, in my heart of hearts, is that people who are subject to rape should have the option of having emergency contraception or emergency contraception information." During the same period Romney worked to prevent Massachusetts from legalizing same-sex marriage.

In a Romney presidency, America probably has little to fear as far as Romney's being a closet theocrat. Like most presidents before him, he would likely be a president for his political constituency first and foremost, regardless of the Mormon Church's stance on various issues. And he would likely have little to fear from his church if those policies sometimes were contrary to church beliefs. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is an American religion, and the church suffered when national government crossed the wall of separation, so it seems at least to appreciate the distinctly American line dance that straddles personal faith and public policy.