Breaking out of the cult

Samantha Katsounas

Robert Jeffress, a Baptist pastor with ties to Gov. Rick Perry, recently ignited a firestorm of controversy when he labeled Mormonism a “cult.” While some dismiss his claims as extremist and unrepresentative of the average American, a fundamental unease with Mormon politicians permeates today’s political culture. A poll released last week by UT and The Texas Tribune revealed that Texans are uncomfortable with the idea of a Mormon in the White House. According to the poll, 23 percent of respondents said that most people they know would not vote for a Mormon, even if they agreed with the candidate on the issues.

The phenomenon is not unique to traditionally conservative Texas. A Gallup poll earlier in the year found that 21 percent of Americans are “unwilling” to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. According to the same Gallup poll, the extent of American hostility to the idea of a Mormon president is “exceeded only by their opposition to someone who is either gay or lesbian or an atheist.” To be a Mormon has remained almost a kiss of death on the national political stage on the national political stage.

Granted, the U.S. electorate is known to lean center-right. But the powerful opinions of voters on this topic are still startling. The two Mormons vying in the GOP primary race — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — are arguably the Republican Party’s most appropriate candidates to ensure victory over President Barack Obama in 2012. Romney has significant leadership experience and overflowing campaign coffers, while Huntsman appeals to the left-leaning moderates who would otherwise vote for Obama. Moreover, the Republican Party has every incentive to support Mormon candidates, since they follow an almost-identical moral compass as other Christians. So why can’t Americans accept the idea of a Mormon president?

According to 2010 Gallup research, Mormons are the “most conservative group in the U.S.” To win the presidency, the Republican Party should be embracing Mormon candidates, not dreading them. The fear of Mormonism is emblematic of how the religious right has taken control of the Republican Party, alienating the very people it should be trying to court. By using religion to narrow the base of the people it appeals to, the religious faction of the Republican Party is undermining its own power and convincing the public that otherwise qualified leaders are intolerable options.

The idea is not a new one. U.S. Sen. Barry “Mr. Conservative” Goldwater was responsible for the resurgence of the conservative movement, embracing the traditional tenets of small government that characterize the Republican Party today. However, Goldwater feared the day when religion would be the dominant issue in the GOP. “If they succeed in establishing religion as a basic Republican Party tenet,” Goldwater famously said, “they could do us in.”

Perhaps most telling was a recent Pew Research poll that asked Americans to pick one word to describe the current Republican candidates. Understandably, Herman Cain was described with “9-9-9,” while Rick Perry was described with “Texas.” Mitt Romney, however, was described as “Mormon” before anything else — even the word “Republican.” This highlights a disturbing political trend in which candidates are defined by their religion instead of their stances on issues.

It’s not as if the American public hasn’t made its position clear. An overwhelming majority of the electorate classifies the economy as its primary concern at the ballot box in 2012. The Republican Party that will win the election is the Republican Party that makes the race about the economy. It is the efforts of the religious right that consistently distract from this idea, focusing instead on divisive social issues that drive away key constituencies. Goldwater’s warnings have come to fruition. Instead of creating substantial proposals to fix the economy, the Republican bid for the White House seems to rely heavily on social rhetoric and religious overtones.

For a victory in 2012, the religious right needs to set aside rhetorical qualms and advocate for the candidate most able to defeat Obama, which may very well be a Mormon. Romney found a surprising ally in opponent Herman Cain, who responded to questions about Mormonism by saying he’s “not running for theologian-in-chief,” according to Businessweek. Cain couldn’t be more accurate. It is counterintuitive and medieval to require a religious litmus test for the presidency. It’s time for Americans to embrace their own political values of equality, reject religion-based hesitance and support a candidate based on the issues.

Katsounas is a finance and government sophomore.