In a race in which none of the four candidates for President and Vice President is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, the question of faith is surprisingly absent from the electoral debate in the US. Certainly, candidates are still following the unwritten rule of finishing every campaign speech with “God Bless America.” And both candidates answered questions about their faith for interviews published this week in Cathedral Age, the Washington National Cathedral’s magazine. President Obama said his faith has grown since he entered the Oval Office. “My Christian faith gives me a perspective and security that I don’t think I would have otherwise: That I am loved. That, at the end of the day, God is in control,” he said. Governor Romney said faith is “integral” to his life, and quoted verses from Matthew.
This is an entirely different language than the faith talk during the 2008 elections, when then-candidate Barack Obama’s middle name prompted anti-Muslim rants and critics lashed out at his affiliation with the Trinity United Church in Chicago’s South Side and its pastor Jeremiah Wright, whose sermons were accused of sowing division.
According to a new 57-country poll, entitled The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, there has been a sharp drop in the number of Americans defining themselves as religious in the past seven years, from 73 percent in 2005 to 60 percent today. But the United States is still a deeply religious country, and the Mormon Church, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to which presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney belongs, is hardly a mainstream religion. Nevertheless, Romney’s Mormonism doesn’t seem to be having any serious impact on the election discourse and won’t likely affect the vote.
Romney himself seems determined to navigate the conversation on the subject as if America has already moved past this topic, and accepted his religion. Last weekend, Romney and several members of his family, accompanied by the press pool, visited his church in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. And when the Republican National Convention gathers next week in Tampa, Florida to formally declare Mitt Romney the GOP candidate for President, the Mormon Faith will take front stage: A member of the LDS Church will reportedly be giving a prayer invocation there.
On the margins of the convention, there will be a panel organized by the American Jewish Committee, a bipartisan advocacy organization that will hold events at both parties’ conventions. It will be dedicated to Mormon-Jewish relations.
“We are having this panel because obviously, there is more curiosity about the Mormon faith at this point in time because of Governor Romney’s candidacy,” Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, told Haaretz.
"For years we’ve had relations with the LDS Church. There are affinities between the Jewish people and the Mormon people. Both communities are almost identical in size, relative to the American and world population; there are 6 or 7 million Mormons in the United States, and about 14 million worldwide. Both communities focus on family, education and integration within America while sustaining religious identity as a goal.
There are, however, limits to these similarities, Marans notes. “After all, it’s a Christian religion and there are significant theological differences. But sociologically, Mormons and Jews have a great deal in common because of their educational attainment, their economic success and their representation in the government that is more influential than their demographic numbers.”
The differences are not limited to faith. In terms of political support, about 74 percent of the Mormons lean toward the Republican party, while 78 percent of Jews voted for Obama in the last presidential election. There is also the deeply emotional conflict between the two communities over the posthumous baptism of Holocaust victims.
Rabbi Marans says this issue is largely resolved through negotiation and the establishment of very strong guidelines by the Church to prevent posthumous baptism of nearly all Holocaust victims. “They continue to believe that Mormons have the right to posthumously baptize victims to whom they are related. If a Mormon has Jewish relatives who perished in the Holocaust, they are allowed to posthumously baptize them. But that is very very small percentage, and nearly all Holocaust victims are successfully blocked from being baptized in this way.
“They see it as something they do, but since they believe in the eternity of the soul, [the baptism] has to be accepted by the party upon whom it is bestowed. And they do not count those who have been posthumously baptized as members of the Mormon Church. They see this as an extension, a gift from their perspective, that only can have validity if it is received.”
The Jewish and Mormon communities, says Marans, have a relationship that allows them to discuss differences “in an open and candid fashion.”
‘An extraordinary religious model’
The LDS Church leaders are acutely aware of suspicions toward their religious practices, and are making a concerted effort to change the church’s image of secrecy. Marans recently led an AJC delegation to visit the newly-built Brigham City Utah Temple with LDS leaders before it is dedicated.
“There is a lot of misinformation about the Mormon Church,” he says. “I think they have opened themselves up more in recent years, so they will be better understood.”
Marans explains that the Mormons have special temples that serve as “centers of holiness” that are part of their spiritual elevation process. “Faith is a matter of what people believe, and different faiths believe different things. From the outside these beliefs are unusual, but that is the case when you look at any religious faith. That said, my most lasting impression of the Mormon Church is their humanitarian work, not their beliefs.
“The Mormon Church is a model of establishing community, of creating family, and above all, of acts of kindness through humanitarian welfare aid, both within the Church and beyond. It can serve as a model for many religious communities. It is extraordinary.”
The recession put some focus on the Mormon community’s self-reliant infrastructure, especially their canneries and warehouses that distribute food and goods to needy community members. It could be interesting to see whether Mitt Romney will mention some of these unique aspects of his faith at the convention, or will even refer to faith at all. In any case, even he keeps two weeks of supplies in his house, like a good LDS Church member, he hardly needs it.
‘Women’s’ issues take spotlight
One issue at the convention that moderate Republicans will probably try to downplay is that of women’s reproductive decisions. This week was hardly a good one for the GOP moderates on that front. The 110-member committee drafting the convention platform approved a Human Life Amendment calling for a ban on abortion, without mentioning an incest or rape caveat. And the Democrats got a publicity gift when Missouri’s Republican senate candidate Todd Akin said a woman’s body “has ways to try to shut ... down” and avoid pregnancy in the case of “legitimate rape.” Although he later apologized, it was too little too late, and even Romney called for him to quit the race.
One of the speakers at the Democratic National Convention, which will take place a week after the GOP convention, will be Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who testified in Congress on the importance of including contraception coverage in health insurance. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut” and a “prostitute” that wants taxpayers to pay for her contraception.
“I think, unfortunately, the campaign is not always focused on specific policy issues,” Fluke told Haaretz. “What I like to talk about is the actual impact that these candidates’ policies have on people’s lives and women’s lives, instead of the type of vitriolic attacks that I was subjected to. But even when the campaign veers into that unproductive territory, it gives us an opportunity to see candidates’ different leadership style in how they react to these type of attacks.
“In my situation, all Governor Romney could say is that ‘these not are the words he would have chosen.’ And that really does give me at least a window into his leadership capacity and his ability to distance himself from the most extreme parts of his party, which rather than condemning, he has full-heartedly embraced.”
Fluke, who has joined Obama’s campaign, says that she saw he was doing his all for women in “issue after issue,” while Romney “was unable to take a position or decide what he felt.” She cited as examples the Affordable Care Act, the Violence Against Women Act and the Fair Pay Act.
“That really clarified for me that the biggest thing I could do support women in this country would be to support President Obama. Any election is about a variety of issues. This one is certainly about the economy, but women are a big part of our economy, and it’s important to discuss how candidates’ policies affect women’s pocketbooks and women’s personal and economic well-being, and how healthcare policies affect them.”
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