July 29, 1999
Considering Candidates' Religion: What It Can Mean for the Vote
-- Peggy Fletcher Stack
On July 1, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah threw his hat into the already crowded ring of presidential candidates. The four-term Republican is only the third practicing Mormon ever to run for president. Church founder Joseph Smith, feeling that his people were not being fairly protected by the government, sought the office in 1844, the same year he was killed by assassins. Michigan governor George Romney, a committed Mormon, ran in 1968.
During Romney's campaign, his church affiliation was briefly raised as an issue but quickly dismissed. Thanks to the success of John F. Kennedy, the first and only Catholic president, religion had come to be seen as a private matter. In our time, however, religion is once again part of a politician's calling card. Since Jimmy Carter's presidency, voters have become aware of a candidate's religious tradition, possibly as a way of assessing that person's moral training.
For his part, Hatch points proudly to his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly referred to as "Mormons." He subscribes to the church's vaunted family values, and his positions on abortion, day care, same-sex marriage, and feminism should win him votes among the religious right. Unfortunately, his Mormonism also may cost him some of those votes, as many conservative Christians, especially the Southern Baptists, view Hatch's church as non-Christian at best and a cult at worst.
A Gallup poll in March revealed that 17 percent of respondents said they would not vote for a Mormon. The church fared just above atheists (48 percent of respondents would not vote for them) and gays (37 percent of respondents would not vote for them).
A 1993 poll of public opinion about eight religions found that Mormons ranked just above Muslims and just below Hindus in people's opinions. The survey, commissioned by the American Muslim Council, showed a 35 percent favorable response to Mormons and a 33 percent unfavorable one.
If Mormons are held in such low esteem, it is possible Hatch's religion may work against him. Still, Hatch doesn't think so.
"Overall, I think my religion will only be a good thing, because I live it every day and people who know us [Mormons] know that we are good, honest people who pay 10 percent tithing, care about our families, and are people of good character," Hatch said in a recent interview.
Right now Hatch is at the bottom of a list of twelve Republican candidates. But what if the election came down to a vote between Al Gore and Orrin Hatch? Whom would the Southern Baptists vote for? A Mormon, whom they consider theologically misguided to the point of damnation but who would vote for most of their agenda, or a man who espouses their same theology but follows it to different political solutions?