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Bonker: Religious Intolerance a Political Problem for Romney but a Bigger Problem for America

One reason Mitt Romney is going nowhere in the polls is religious discrimination, a problem he has had difficulty addressing — and that has proved to be a problem that crosses party lines.

While evangelical Christians are often pinpointed as the group most likely to oppose a Mormon candidate, a Gallup poll from June showed that while 18 percent of Republicans said they would not support a Mormon for president, the number was one-third higher — 27 percent — for Democrats.

The issue reared its head again this week when the other leading contender for the GOP nomination, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), saw his Iowa political director resign after calling the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a “cult.”

This is unfortunate in that religious freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution and that one’s religious faith should not be a factor when seeking public office.

It is certainly not a factor in the other branch of government. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is also a Mormon who happens to preside over the Senate without any hint that his religion is an issue, nor does it come into play with another prominent U.S. Senator, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a Mormon who for many years chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. Currently six Mormons serve in the Senate.

We’ve come a long way since 1903, when the Utah Legislature elected Reed Smoot to be the first Mormon to be seated in the Senate. But when Smoot arrived in Washington in early 1904 with every expectation that he would be sworn in, he instead spent the next four years on the sidelines while a Senate committee investigated the charges against him, prompted by a nationally organized campaign by church leaders who passionately opposed the seating of any Mormon, however deserving, in Congress.

The issue that sparked the controversy in the religious community was polygamy, a practice that was officially abandoned by the LDS church in 1890 but persisted well into the 20th century. The head of the church, Joseph F. Smith, cohabited with his many wives and fathered 11 children, which outraged Christians leaders who organized a national campaign to prevent such behavior from being officially sanctioned by the Senate.

But it was not only polygamy. The attorney, representing those protesting Smoot’s admittance to the Senate, argued that the real danger was the Mormon take on revelation, which more deeply symbolized the distrust of the LDS church in the American Protestant establishment at the time.

According to historian Kathleen Flake, the Senate deliberation explored every peculiarity of Mormonism, emphasizing the polygamous family structure, ritual worship practices, “secret oaths,” economic communalism and theocratic politics. Overflow crowds filled the committee room and Senate gallery, all of which was vigorously covered by journalists and cartoonists that would be the envy of today’s TV talk shows.

On the last day of the Senate deliberations, Sen. Fred Dubois (R-Idaho), who led the attacks against Smoot, charged that the Mormon doctrine commanded the “Saints to take unto themselves a multiplicity of wives, limited in number only be the measures of their desires.”

That prompted Sen. Boies Penrose (R-Pa.) to respond by making the point that Smoot had always been faithfully married to the same woman; then, as he deliberately cast his eye around the Senate chamber, he commented that he was well familiar with the behavior of some of his colleagues known for philandering, concluding with this rhetorical line: “I would rather have seated beside me in this chamber a polygamist who doesn’t polyg than a monogamist who doesn’t monag!”

Eventually the Senate committee voted against the seating of Sen.-elect Smoot, which was fortunately reversed when President Theodore Roosevelt intervened and convinced Senate leaders that they had no choice but to insure that Smoot would be sworn in as Utah’s next Senator.

Smoot went on to serve for 27 years in the Senate and became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. His enduring legacy has more to do with the enactment of the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which bears his name, than his Mormon faith.

Though we have come a long way since 1903, religion continues to be a political, if not polarizing, factor in our national elections. But it should not be in the form of discrimination.

If it is true that religion helps to shape an individual’s values, notably our character, moral standing, personal integrity and genuine commitment to public service (most Mormons serve as missionaries as young adults), then Mitt Romney and his fellow Mormon, Jon Huntsman, stand far above the other presidential candidates in the Republican primary.

It is these characteristics, not mythical tales that date back 100 years, that voters should consider as they prepare to cast their ballots in Iowa and the other primary states in the months ahead.

Don Bonker is a former Democratic House Member from Washington and is now executive vice president of APCO Worldwide.

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