by Rebecca Borison
With Mitt Romney’s status as Republican presidential candidate now official, Americans have begun in earnest to analyze his characteristics and qualifications. The first topic up for debate seems to be that fact that Romney is a practicing Mormon. The talk of Romney’s affiliation with Mormonism is highly reminiscent of the 1976 elections and Jimmy Carter’s Evangelicalism, which brings to the table an important question: should the President’s religion matter?
In 1976, Moment featured an article by Martin E. Marty titled “Is Carter an Evangelical?” In the article, Marty offers an informative guide to Evangelical Christianity and explores the validity of the Jewish concern over Carter’s religion. Thirty-six years ago, most Americans were fairly clueless about what Evangelical Christianity actually meant; various Christian sects often got bundled together under one umbrella. “Evangelicals have been overlooked in part because they tend to be lumped in the public eye with Fundamentalists,” Marty explains.
Once Marty comes up with a clearer definition of Evangelicalism, he discusses the Evangelical view on Judaism: they believe that a Jewish homeland in Israel fulfills the biblical prophecy and will eventually lead to the Second Coming of Jesus. According to Marty, “nothing in [Carter’s] Evangelical Southern Baptist roots would predispose him to express sentiments that might make Israel’s friends nervous.”
On an individual level, however, Evangelicals (in the 1970s, at least) had very little interaction with Jews and tended to express anti-Semitic notions. Many Evangelicals grow up in the South, where Jews make up a very small minority. Marty refers to a book called Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism and explains that “among ten surveyed denominations, Southern Baptists were least likely to defend the right of Jews to be free of discrimination at vacation resorts, least ready to be sensitive in an anti-Semitic incident, more likely than any other denomination to feel that Jews’ loyalties to Israel might compromise their devotion to America,” and ranked second-highest on an overall “index of anti-Semitic beliefs.”
So while Carter might bring pro-Israel values to his presidency, Jews (and Americans in general) could have been justified in worrying about his ability to be open-minded and pluralistic. In a campaign document called Why Not the Best, Carter attempted to prove that he is more open than most Evangelicals. But according to Marty, Jews still had some reason to worry: “Jews are wary of Carter’s context. To them he is from a distant region, a strange faith, given to expressions of piety that are uncongenial to them.”
Thirty-six years later, we still worry. In the latest issue of Moment, nine rabbis answered the question “Will it matter to Jews if there is a Mormon President?” Across the board, the rabbis strove to ignore labels and judge a candidate for his actions as opposed to his religion. It is important to carefully evaluate the presidential candidates, but simply making assumptions based on religious affiliation would be counter to the religious freedom America proudly upholds.