Earlier this month, Mitt Romney announced he’d raised more money than any other G.O.P. presidential candidate. Richard Ostling, co-author of Mormon America: The Power and The Promise, explains what the Romney moment means for the Mormon Church.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has raised 23 million dollars in Presidential campaign funds, more than any other Republican. It was a high-profile success for a Mormon politician, and when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints let its long time PR firm go recently, many thought they might be hoping to capitalize on Romney's success.
Good PR, after all, has been a slippery thing for the country's fourth-largest denomination. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the 2002 Winter Olympics, which first lofted Mitt Romney to a national stage, are obvious Mormon successes, but waiting until 1978 to desegregate the church, not so much.
Richard Ostling, co–author of Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, says that in the face of declining membership, Romney may be ushering in the Mormons’ moment. Richard, welcome to the show. RICHARD OSTLING: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, Romney isn't the first prominent Mormon in national politics, right? I mean, his father ran against Nixon in '68. There was Morris Udall, the Democratic senator from Arizona who ran against Carter in '76. There's Orrin Hatch, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. How important a moment is this for the Mormon Church? RICHARD OSTLING: Well, there's no doubt that the Romney candidacy is a big moment for the Mormon American because he probably has a shot at the presidential or vice-presidential nomination. And I think it's fair to say that no previous Mormon has.
At the same time, as you mentioned, Harry Reid has emerged as, by far, the most powerful Mormon to hold public office in this country. Now, he doesn't have as high a profile as a Mormon because Romney held important church positions, but it's interesting these two figures have emerged simultaneously, in a sense, because it shows though Mormons tend to be very Republican and very conservative on the whole in their voting patterns, nevertheless the church doesn't have a political ideology, as such. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, polls show that many Americans don't know anything about the church, and most of what they do know is wrong. Can you give us a quick primer on Mormon belief?
RICHARD OSTLING: Boy [LAUGHS] that, that's a complicated question. [BROOKE LAUGHS] But we could start with polygamy. I think folks have a general confusion about it. You know, don't these folks or didn't they practice polygamy? Part of the problem is, of course, that there are splinter groups, which do practice polygamy.
In fact, the church outlawed or ended polygamy in 1890. But, it was established by the founding prophet, Joseph Smith, so it is part of the Mormon heritage, in a general sense, and Mitt Romney and many others have polygamous forebears back in the 19th century. BROOKE GLADSTONE: His great-grandfather had five wives, right? RICHARD OSTLING: Yes, it certainly is a problem. I mean, they're at pains to make the point that we haven't practiced it for well over 100 years. This does provide the church a chance to sort of make its case and explain itself, and I think there'll be a lot of public interest. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yes, it's a teachable moment. On the other hand, once you look into Mormonism, it can seem awfully wacky to the believers of more mainstream faiths, mostly because a lot of the founding myths occurred in such recent history. RICHARD OSTLING: Yes, that's certainly true. I mean, the Mormon founder made the astonishing claim that Christianity essentially vanished from the face of the earth fairly soon after Jesus' lifetime and had to be restored by the American prophet. And, indeed, these are things that are said to have happened right here in the United States in the 19th century, the receiving of golden tablets, new revelations alongside the Bible.
The tablets then were taken by the angels, so we don't have them. His view of God and of Jesus Christ and any number of other things would be at variance from your typical American churchgoer. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you find it sort of funny that Romney, who needs to appeal to the evangelical voter and Christian conservatives generally in order to win the nomination, will have a problem potentially because those people, though they may share his values, don't, in some cases, see Mormonism as Christianity? RICHARD OSTLING: Yeah, that's going to be a really interesting question. It's significant, at this point in the campaign, that the attacks on Romney on religious terms have come from liberal and secular writers and commentators. I don't know of any important evangelical Protestant leader who has said, I don't want a Mormon in the White House. They've pretty much been saying the opposite.
However, the polls indicate a lot of wariness in the American population about having a Mormon President, and there's no doubt that there are evangelicals counted among those people. So it's just kind of a moment of truth, I guess you'd say, for a lot of American religious groups. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you've said that Romney has yet to have his JFK moment. What do you mean by that? RICHARD OSTLING: Well, in the 1960 campaign, there was a huge religious issue. We had never had a non-Protestant as President. So Kennedy made a famous speech in Houston to a ministerial association, and he told all these Protestant folks: [CLIP]: PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE JOHN F. KENNEDY: So it is apparently necessary for me to state, once, again not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in. I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the President, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote. [END OF CLIP] RICHARD OSTLING: It was a brilliant address. Now, everybody's saying, well, is Romney going to give a similar address. People seem to be saying he ought to do it, but there are no firm signs that he intends to. BROOKE GLADSTONE: We have one example of that reluctance to engage when Judy Woodruff posed this question to him last year on PBS. JUDY WOODRUFF: There are some aspects of Mormonism that many Americans might not understand –– the belief that Jesus Christ will appear again in the state of Missouri or that God has a material body, that he was fathered by another God. Are these legitimate issues for people to ask you about during the campaign? [OVERTALK]
MITT ROMNEY: Well, there's a leap of faith associated with every religion. You haven't exactly got those doctrines right, but if you have doctrines you want to talk about, go talk [LAUGHS] to the church. JUDY WOODRUFF: Okay. MITT ROMNEY: Because that's not my job. RICHARD OSTLING: He may be calculating that it's better just to kind of low-key it. But I think the polls show enough nervousness at this point that if I were advising him politically I'd probably say, you know, you really have to tackle this thing and deal with the questions that are swirling around the Internet. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Richard, thank you very much. RICHARD OSTLING: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Richard Ostling and his wife Joan are completing an updated edition of Mormon America: The Power and the Promise. [CLIP]: PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE JOHN F. KENNEDY: For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been - [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] - and may someday be again, a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. [END OF CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]