The Mormon question: Can a Mormon become a U.S. president?

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Mitt Romney, a current candidate for the GOP nomination for president and a BYU graduate, could soon find himself being the most current victim of the “Mormon Question.” Media will no doubt need to dig deep into Romney’s philosophical make-up to dig up any dark secrets in the absence of a past filled with the dirt that many other candidates tend to lend.

This will open Romney’s Latter-day Saint faith to criticism. Romney is one of several Mormons who has sought the United States presidency.

“The Mormon Quest for the Presidency,” a topic that has prompted books, decades worth of news articles and scholarly research, found its way into a BYU forum hosted Wednesday by the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies.

The forum brought to light the numerous candidates from the past century and a half that have run for the U.S. presidency who were also members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The forum featured Newell C. Bringhurst, from the College of the Sequoias in California, and Craig L. Foster, a research specialist at the Family History Library.

The discussion followed along the same pattern Foster and Bringhurst outline in their book, “The Mormon Quest for the Presidency.” The book describes 10 Mormons who ran for the nation’s highest office since the first candidate, LDS Church President Joseph Smith Jr., all the way to the most recent, Mitt Romney.

The book doesn’t include former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, as it was written in 2008, before Huntsman became a presidential contender.

Bringhurst explained that Joseph Smith, as the first member of the LDS faith to run for the presidency, waged a campaign not dissimilar with many of the Republican primary candidates of this 21st-century election cycle. Emphasizing civil liberties (being an advocate of the abolition of slavery) and lowering the salaries of elected officials, Smith, in 1844, ran as an independent.

Bringhurst shed light on a little-known bit of American history derived from Joseph Smith’s martyrdom in Carthage Jail.

“Smith’s violent death earned him the dubious distinction of being the first presidential candidate to be assassinated in the United States,” he said.

Bringhurst, a Democrat,  focused his talking points on the liberal members of the LDS Church who unsuccessfully made a bid for the presidency. In 1976, Mo Udall, a former member of the Denver Nuggets, lost the Democratic nomination for president by about 1 percent of the primary vote. Jimmy Carter defeated Udall and later won the general election to become the country’s 39th president. Udall was considered more liberal than Carter in that primary cycle.

Foster, admitting his Republican inclinations, gave an overview of the more conservative LDS candidates, starting with Gov. George Romney, who ran in 1968 as a  Republican. Even though Romney was considered a conservative, Foster explains that Romney viewed himself as a “moderate” Republican. George Romney is the father of current presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. The senior Romney removed himself from the 1968 primary cycle before any votes were cast as he had suffered increased attacks for his opposition to the Vietnam War.

The most prevalent LDS figure to “almost” run for president of the United States in the 20th century was President Ezra Taft Benson. Pres. Benson had a following that organized a committee in 1976, but the difficulty of raising adequate finances kept him from officially running. Pres. Benson was considered the more conservative candidate of any of the rumored candidates at the time; he also was an avid opponent of communism both in political speeches and religious statements.

Foster mentioned the 2000 primary run of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. In a crowded Republican primary, Hatch discontinued his campaign and moved his support to then Gov. George W. Bush. Foster says Hatch and Bush had “similar” policies, making the campaign move to throw Hatch’s support to Bush of little surprise.

Bringhurst and Foster account for 10 members of the LDS Church who have run for president of the United States since the beginning of the religion in the 19th century.

The lecture stopped short of discussing the current LDS contenders running for president. Foster has published the book “A Different God: Mitt Romney, The Religious Right, and The Mormon Question,” which is available for those interested in the current LDS candidates and how their LDS faith could impact the 2012 election cycle.

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