An Al Smith Moment?

I have an op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle today on what Romney’s “Mormon problem” tells us about American politics. Rather than asking the question of what it would men if a Mormon were elected president, I ask the question of what it would mean if Romney lost because he is a Mormon. In such a case, the correct analogy for Romney would not be Kennedy in 1960 but Al Smith in 1928, who for a generation stood for the rule that a Catholic could not be president. You can read the whole argument here.

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5 Responses

  1. Jack Chin says:

    Fascinating post, but if you believe, as I do, that Jewish persons, African Americans, probably Latinos, Indians, Asian Americans, atheists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, and Quakers (except Richard Nixon) have little chance to be elected president, the fact that LDS members are probably also unelectable seems less extraordinary. It is not that Mormons are out, it is that only white, male protestants and Catholics are in. To be president one must be mainstream–no counterexamples come to mind.

  2. Nate Oman says:

    You may be right, but I can resist pointing out that Herbert Hoover was a Quaker ;->

  3. The tone of your article seems to be saying that it doesn’t matter why Romney (hypothetically) loses. In fact, you seem to make the assertion that if Romney loses for any reason, it will be a discriminatory black mark against LDS members — that just as Smith’s other reasons for losing are forgotten, so will Romney’s.

    And yet here you say you’re asking what will happen if Romney loses because of his religion, as if it’s okay for him to lose for some other reason. Did you intend the overtones in the op-ed?

  4. Nate Oman says:

    My point is precisely that the issue will be muddy, just as it was in Al Smith’s case, but that the muddiness will not be remembered. If he loses I think that that the story of his “Mormon problem” will become part of the canonical narrative of his defeat, if you will. More importantly, that narrative will become part of the canonical story of the place of Mormons in American politics. This is more or less what happened with Al Smith. When Al Smith is a reference for Catholicism in American politics no one says, “Ya know, 1928 was a Republican year no matter what.” Rather they say, “The opposition to Al Smith showed that a Catholic could not be president.”

    My piece wasn’t meant to either boost Romney or attack him, but only set out what I think his “Mormon problem” means for American politics. I don’t think that the defeat of a Mormon candidate per se has big implications for the place of Mormons or anyone else in American society. I think that the defeat of a Mormon candidate BECAUSE HE IS MORMON does, and I think that it the real world it will be impossible to get a clean answer to the question at this point if Romney loses.

    And now I really need to quite looking for excuses not to grade exams…

  5. Frank says:

    I was just reading about the Smith defeat in the Ben Friedman book “Moral Consequences of Economic Growth.” Given how closely the 00s have mirrored the 20s, I think the metaphor is quite apt.