Tuesday 21 June 2011

If you're a Mormon and want to be President, copy JFK

The latest polling coming from America suggests voters may be hesitant to vote for a Mormon as President. In a country where recent presidential elections have been decided by a handful of states, or even by the Supreme Court, having a quarter of the electorate against you simply because of your religion is going to be quite a barrier to the White House.

Two Republican Party hopefuls - Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman - are active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. If this polling is accurate then neither will ever be president. To me these two are the strongest of the current pack of Republican hopefuls vying to be their parties nominee for next year's election. Both have other weaknesses but their strengths should put them ahead of the rag-tag assortment of other candidates lining up ahead of the Republican primary fight.

So what to do? Plow on concentrating on 'the issues' and hope that voters forget you're a Mormon? Nope. They should take this issue head-on and neutralise it sooner rather than later. Tactically one of Huntsman or Romney might benefit if the other is the one to proactively raise the issue. There is a real danger though that the candidate who buries their head in the sand on this could be made to look weak, indecisive or even dishonest.

As part of the 1960 presidential election John F. Kennedy made what was to become an historic speech to a group of Protestant ministers outlining what his faith meant to him and why it wouldn't colour his judgement in the White House. Commentators, journalists and, most importantly then, voters welcomed the speech allowing them to put the issue to one side ahead of the election later that year.

Prior to this however, JFK had come under enormous pressure with some churches actively campaigning against him purely because he was Catholic. While JFK argued in that speech , "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" in modern day America the church and politics is ever increasingly interlinked. 

If I was advising Romney or Huntsman I would get them to make a speech taking their religion head on, outlining what they believe in. A restatement of the values outlined by JFK over 50 years ago would be good for them but also might well be good for American politics more broadly.  

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