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Hatch exit sidesteps Mormon question

By Rick Smith, Gazette staff writer, January 29, 2000 10:45 AM


Last week's hasty campaign exit of Sen. Orrin Hatch prevented America from pondering a first election of a Mormon president.

Hatch, R-Utah, entered the race late, failed to attract interest and quit so early that discussion of his Mormon religion never surfaced.

"I don't think this is a fair test of whether people would accept a Mormon president," says Bruce Nesmith, Coe College professor of political science. "It just never came up."

Dennis Goldford, Drake University political science professor, put it this way: "He managed to fail at this task completely independent of any kind of religious background.

"So we still have not had a black as president, a Jew as president or a Mormon," Goldford said.

The Drake professor says that even asking the question about the ability of a Mormon to be elected president is a bit 'incendiary" because such a notion suggests that there is something inherently suspect about the religion.

Nonetheless, Tim Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa and a George W. Bush supporter, admits he found himself wondering how Hatch's religion might sell even as he met him after one of the presidential debates in Iowa.

"My guess is that it would be a little bit like what people were thinking when John Kennedy was running for president, when they said, 'Oh, he's Catholic, he's going to be taking his orders from the Pope,"' Hagle says.

In this instance, the idea would be that Hatch would be beholden to the First President, the head of the Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).

"My guess is that it's not really relevant in the same way that it wasn't really relevant that Kennedy was a Catholic," Hagle says.

Yet he, Nesmith and Goldford as well as David Weddle, Cornell College professor of religion, and Paul Garvin, Cornell professor of geology and a Mormon church leader in Mount Vernon, all agree that the Mormon religion and history would have gotten a healthy public airing if Hatch's candidacy had had some staying power.

While pondering the prospects of a Mormon candidate, Weddle was reminded of a past conversation with renowned theologian Martin Marty, who told about the time in 1976 when a pool of East Coast reporters called to ask about Jimmy Carter.

"'Jimmy Carter is born again: What exactly is that?' the reporters wanted to know," recalls Weddle. "They were completely clueless about what that religious tradition meant."

The media's response would have been the same, if not more so, if Hatch as a Mormon had been a strong candidate, Weddle says.

Mormonism is one of the few American-born religions and it traditionally has been on the margin in the United States, religiously, politically and socially, Weddle says.

What most Americans know is that the church is centered in Utah, its members have a strong belief in family, and neatly attired young-adult male members serve stints as missionaries.

The church was founded by Joseph Smith, who between the ages of 14 and 25 in western New York, experienced visions, including one of Jesus Christ and his Father and another of an angel who guided him to golden plates inscribed with a narrative in hieroglyphic script. Smith's translation was published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon, which he believed to be an ancient historical and religious record of inhabitants of North America.

So unsettling to mainstream America was Smith's religion which then included the practice of polygamy that his followers were literally driven west, finally to Utah, Weddle says.

Smith never made it. After he declared himself a candidate for the U.S. presidency in 1844, he was jailed on treason and conspiracy charges in Illinois and was assassinated there by a mob.

In a broad sense, Weddle suggests that the history of the Mormon church is no different than that of any other religion in its ability to generate skepticism.

"There are certain aspects of the original documents and founding events of any religion that at some time later on become something of an embarrassment," he says.

Some of the Mormon's early history might have been revisited if Hatch had caught on as a candidate, he says.

Garvin recalls that George Romney Sr. faced questions about his Mormon religion when he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.

But Weddle suspects much has changed since then, noting that the Mormon way of life, with its stress on the importance of family, has moved into the mainstream of American political values.

Every presidential candidate this year has at least given lip service to family values, Garvin adds.

Coe's Nesmith thinks the current Mormon church would get a public examination, not the historical one.

"We're not talking about the Mormon era of Brigham Young with his many wives and people like that," Nesmith says. "To the extent that Mormonism has had an influence in Utah and Idaho and places like that, it is that they have lived out the very themes of family values, and living by the Bible, and righteous living that other people on the religious right also support."

Drake's Goldford notes that certain evangelical Protestants are suspicious of Mormons and sometimes question if Mormons really are Christians.

Weddle, though, suspects the evangelicals would have accommodated Hatch, provided he campaigned against abortion.

In the end, did Hatch's Mormon religion quietly play any role in the Iowa caucuses?

"Politically, whether or not being a Mormon was a bullet in the body, the body had had 8,000 deaths by stabbing, so the one bullet didn't make a difference," Goldford says. "He had all these other problems."

Coe's Nesmith agrees.

"At the worst scenario, if there is a seething bunch of anti-Mormons out there, it might have cut his percentage from 2 to 1 percent in Iowa," he says.

Weddle doubts America today is ready for a president who is a Muslim, a Jehovah's Witness or an atheist because it is not ready for anyone who espouses religious convictions too strongly. Only Jimmy Carter, among modern presidents, was able to do that and win election.

A moderate Mormon could win, he suspects.

"I think Orrin Hatch is a very good example here," Weddle says. "He's used the public image of the Mormons, particularly the family values, without making prominent his own personal religious commitment.

"You wouldn't get the impression that Orrin Hatch is the sort of person who might be going door to door to talk to you about becoming a Latter-day Saint. He's moderate in that sense."



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