Could Mitt Romney Be the First Jewish President?

The shared experience of Mormons and Jews as religious minorities in America has led to some surprising affinities

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On Wednesday morning, Mitt Romney received a giddy reception at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington, D.C. The audience was clapping before he even set foot on stage, and the applause only got louder as his speech went on. Denouncing President Obama's Middle East policy as "appeasement," he pledged to make Israel his first port of call should he win the 2012 election. "I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel's existence as a Jewish state," he said. "I want the world to know that the bonds between Israel and the United States are unshakable."

It's inevitable that Romney's foreign policy views should win him some fans among Jewish Republicans, but he also draws a surprising level support among Jewish voters in general when compared to his Republican competitors. The socially conservative Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would seem likely to be as alienating to Jews -- one of America's most liberal demographics -- as the evangelical Christianity of a Michele Bachmann. But September's annual American Jewish Committee poll of political attitudes found otherwise. If Romney were nominated by the GOP, he'd attract 32 percent of Jewish voters to Obama's 50 percent, it found. That figure doesn't sound big, but it's larger than Rick Perry's 25 percent or Bachmann's 19 percent (the survey did not ask about Newt Gingrich). It's also way ahead of the votes drawn by John McCain in 2008 -- 21 percent. Were it replicated on election day, 2012, it would be the most impressive showing by a GOP candidate in 24 years.

Of course, Obama's slide in the polls and Romney's moderate politics and comparative popularity among all voters might explain those numbers. But it's also possible that -- consciously or subconsciously -- Jewish voters feel more of a kinship with a man whose ethnic and religious experience in American has a surprising number of parallels their own.

In April 2011, Romney's wife told a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition that she felt at home with the group because, "Mitt and I can appreciate coming from another heritage." Certainly, Romney's biography touches upon classic Jewish themes of cultural "separateness". As journalist Benjamin Wallace-Wells observes of Romney's early career as a management consultant at Bain Capital: "Romney wasn't a Wasp. He never really talked to his co-workers about his Mormonism, but he sometimes joked with Jewish colleagues about how their religions made them all outsiders." The former Massachusetts governor has even picked up some lingo from members of the tribe, as Jews sometimes refer to themselves. In a speech at Yeshiva University in April 2007, Romney said will to succeed at Bain despite his outsider status was pure "chutzpah."

The faith that Romney grew up in has many fundamental differences from Judaism, to say the least. The LDS Church is more authoritarian; its members emphasize conformity, submission, evangelism, and religious hierarchy. In contrast, the Jewish rabbinical tradition favors debate and rejects efforts to convert others. Unlike Mormons, Jews also don't ask for secrecy to their rituals and don't attempt to bar nonbelievers from their places of worship (even if they don't exactly welcome them, either).

But there are intriguing similarities. Both groups theologically define themselves as "chosen" by God to fulfill certain prophesies. Mormons believe that they are descended through biblical Israel (usually through the tribe of Ephraim), making the Jews their "cousins". Like their "cousins," they refer to outsiders as "gentiles." Both cultures value education, oppose marriage outside the community, have strict dietary rules, and place an emphasis upon observing the Sabbath. They even share a sartorial tie: the devout in both faiths wear special undergarments.

But the most crucial similarity is the two communities' historical story of suffering. In the 19th century, the Mormons were chased across the U.S. by Protestant mobs and even subject to an "extermination order" in Missouri. The Church's founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered by vigilantes in 1844. From 1857-1858, the U.S. Army actually occupied Utah. Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, is reported to have told future LDS President Ezra Taft Benson, "There are no people in the world who understand Jews like the Mormons do."

Of course, the Mormon experience comes nowhere close to the Jewish history of persecution. But what's more important is that the average Mormon thinks it does. There is scattered evidence of anti-Semitism in LDS history, but the sense of a shared theology and history has translated into a genuine fondness on the part of Mormons for all things Jewish. The fourth elected governor of Utah was a Jew (Simon Bamberger, elected 1916) and the LDS Church provided funds to build the first Reform Synagogue in Salt Lake City. Mormons are discouraged from proselytizing in Israel and, since 1995, Mormons have stopped posthumously baptizing Jews who have died (an act they continue to perform for everyone else).

For Romney, all of this history translates into a profound admiration for the state of Israel. The candidate has promised to up aid to Israel and has accused Obama of throwing the country "under the bus." These foreign policy views help explain why he has attracted so much high-level Jewish Republican support to his campaign.

Another reason might be Romney's willingness to push certain buttons on the issue of the separation of church and state. The historical persecution of the Mormon community has taught it the value of keeping the state away from religion and vice versa. The eleventh Article of Faith of the LDS Church reads: "We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may." In an 1865 declaration, the Church also stated, "We do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion." The skeptic might ask how such apparent respect for separating church and state squares with the LDS campaign against gay marriage in California. One answer is that Mormons draw a distinction between faith and morality, seeing matters of religious freedom as different from sexual identity and behavior. Either way, there's room for Romney to be legitimately perceived as a supporter of the separation of church and state -- it's a position he has defended more vocally than his other serious competitors in the GOP field.

At the Las Vegas Republican presidential debate a few days after Pastor Robert Jeffress called Mormonism a cult, Perry argued that men like Jeffress, a supporter of his then more formidable candidacy, were free to consider a man's religion when deciding how to vote. Romney angrily countered with what could have been a speech by Ted Kennedy: "That idea that we should choose people based upon their religion for public office is what I find to be most troubling, because the founders of this country went to great length to make sure -- and even put it in the Constitution -- that we would not choose people who represent us in government based upon their religion, that this would be a nation that recognized and respected other faiths, where there's a plurality of faiths, where there was tolerance for other people and faiths. That's a bedrock principle." Many Jewish viewers might have cried, "Amen to that." Its occasional moments of mainstream sanity like this that continue to make Romney such an attractive pick to swing voters and Republicans desperate to win.

In 1998, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the African-American novelist Toni Morrison suggested that Bill Clinton was "our first black President." Putting aside his skin color, Morrison argued, "Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas." The analysis remains deservedly controversial, but it did offer a plausible cultural explanation for why so many African-Americans identified with -- even loved -- Clinton. Over time, one can imagine a similar dynamic developing between a substantial minority of Jewish Americans and the first Mormon major-party presidential nominee. In a country where race and religion remain politically divisive, such a surprising synergy would only be a good thing.

Image credit: Joe Skipper/Reuters