Meet the Original Mitt Romney
As Mitt Romney fights for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination, his Mormon faith has becoming a stumbling block for a segment of voters in early primary states.
But this is not the first time a Mormon candidate has been politically hamstrung by his faith; Mormon Apostle Reed Smoot faced similar challenges between the years 1903-07 after the Utah State Legislature elected him to the US Senate.
National polls since 2008 consistently show a bi-partisan minority of the American electorate who will not vote for a Mormon candidate. This is problematic for Mitt Romney, since a recent Pew poll revealed that 60% Americans used the word "Mormon" to identify the former Massachusetts Governor.
Furthermore, exit polls taken in early primaries, particularly in southern states, indicate that ardent Evangelical Christians vote against Romney in large pluralities; instead voting for two Catholic candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. In Gingrich's case, Evangelicals have voted for him despite his recent conversion away from Evangelicalism to Catholicism, and in spite his history of marital infidelity and multiple marriages.
Religious leaders in these early primary states have demarcated Mormonism from Christianity, stating Mormons are false Christians. One Evangelical leader in Iowa explained that "eighty percent of evangelicals will not vote for Romney in a contested primary" while another in South Carolina declared that Christians would rather vote for an adulterer with multiple past marriages than vote for a Mormon.
Other non-clerical critics have drawn attention to Mormonism's more unique practices, including Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel who implored Romney to speak out against the Church for baptizing of holocaust victims for the dead in proxy ceremonies performed in temples.
Mormonism, as a phenomenon of national politics, has a long history dating back to the 1800s when the Church was founded.
Beginning in 1862 and extending four decades, the Federal Government passed several pieces of onerous legislation intended to quell the practice of plural marriage, which the Church ended in 1890. Additionally, Utah's quest for statehood occupied the national conversation for a protracted forty-five year period. Statehood was eventually achieved in 1896, but only after the Church discontinued polygamy.
Most relevant, however, were Senate hearings, referred to as the Reed Smoot hearings, held in Washington between 1904 and 1906.
After Mormon Apostle Reed Smoot was elected to US Senate in 1903, a political firestorm erupted. Smoot, who like Romney was also a successful businessman turned politician, held all the constitutional qualifications to serve as a Senator. But based on his religion, millions of citizens inundated Washington with petitions demanding Smoot's removal. Others incorrectly claimed Smoot was secretly a polygamist, when Smoot had been a lifelong monogamist. Outraged women viewed the Church's former association with polygamy as a threat to the "sanctity of the American home" and relied on petitions as a proxy for voting. The issue was referred to a Senate sub-committee, and formal hearings were held that determined the Senate could expel Smoot from Congress by a two-thirds up-or-down vote.
Religious leaders also used Smoot's election to deride aspects of Mormonism. As reported in Los Angeles Times, Reverend Wishard instructed Methodist ministers: "The greatest source of revenue in the Mormon church is the baptizing of living relatives, who stand sponsor for relatives who have died, outside the church. They exact a heavy fee for this service, and it is going steadily on every day at four centers in Utah." Also, an editorial writer for the Christian Observer opined that "The Mormon Church is one of the bitterest enemies to evangelical religion, and the deadliest foe to Republican institutions in this country."
Despite the uproar, Smoot was allowed to remain in the Senate by a 42-28 roll-call vote of Senators in 1907. Smoot subsequently served five terms in Congress, gaining historical fame at the end of his career when his signature legislation passed, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930.
Weeks after Smoot's vindication, he publicly celebrated "I pray that this will be the last great battle for the upholding of our Constitution guaranteeing religious liberty to all citizens. I hope it will never occur again in ... the United States, where a man's religious belief is brought in question ... and I believe it will not."
Smoot's belief that his Washington victory would remove political barriers for future Mormon candidates held firm until Romney's run for the presidency. And now that he is favorite to win the GOP nomination, it's appears Romney may surmount the same political hurdle of religious bigotry Smoot once encountered.