Role of Religion Remains a Question in Hatch Bid

The Salt Lake Tribune, June 29, 1999
By John Heilprin

When Sen. Orrin Hatch begins campaigning in July for the GOP presidential nomination, he will not lack excuses for being down in the polls. He is getting started late, with little money or organization.

He has another factor affecting the odds, sort of a wild card: Few Mormons before Hatch have run for president, and none has won his party's nomination.

But Hatch is a crusader who believes in miracles. He says his life has been filled with them. It probably will take another one for him to win.

The 65-year-old Hatch, a senator since 1977 and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, knows he is the "longest of the long shots" in his bid against front-runner Texas Gov. George W. Bush and 10 other Republicans.

He already is taking advantage of the national TV talk-show circuit, where he gained stature counseling and criticizing President Clinton during the Senate impeachment trial. And everywhere he goes, Hatch makes evident his position as a prominent member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Though he starts far behind in fund raising and campaign support, Hatch hopes to raise an initial $1 million to $2 million from a base of Republican and Mormon voters.

For its part, the LDS Church, which has been shaped by persecution and banishment in the 19th century, may find that Hatch serves as a barometer for how well the religion has been accepted into modern American culture.

John West, a Seattle Pacific University political science professor and senior fellow on religion and politics at the Discovery Institute, said Americans "really haven't had a lot of experience with alternative or other religions in the presidential race."

"It might hurt him because one of his natural constituencies, the evangelical Christians, have theological problems with Mormons. They might feel uncomfortable about that because there is a lot of controversy. It's not easy to say how that will play," West said.

Hatch plans to formally announce his candidacy around the Fourth of July weekend, but he has begun hiring campaign staff, opened a Salt Lake City presidential campaign office and registered a Hatch 2000 Web page.

He plans to campaign in Iowa and compete in the state Republican Party's straw poll in August.

Political observers agree Hatch's religion might make a difference with voters only if he becomes a serious contender. The strait-laced Hatch, a former Mormon bishop, hopes to be the fallback candidate if Bush stumbles.

His religion already is drawing attention, similar to the 1960 race in which John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic to hold the office of president of the United States.

"It will probably be an issue in some quarters," said Matthew Moen, chair of the political science department at the University of Maine in Orono. "But we've reached the point in the American electorate where religious affiliations aren't as important as they used to be. Kennedy sort of broke the barrier."

USA Today, in the first paragraph of a story about Hatch's candidacy last week, described him as "the loquacious Mormon songwriter who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee." The story did not mention Bush's religion.

"I suspect it will be a matter of curiosity," observed Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who like most of Utah's political establishment is white, male, Republican and Mormon. "I don't know if that will make it an issue. That will be one of the things I suspect that will be interesting to see."

Hatch has said he believes his religion will not affect voters either way.

"I would think the American people would not be prejudiced against anybody because of their beliefs and especially somebody who served this country 23 years in the Senate," Hatch said in an interview earlier this month. "If nothing else, I'll get my point of view across in this country so people hopefully wake up to what we've got to do to save this country," he said. "It won't be an ego thing."

In Sunday interviews on NBC and "Fox News Sunday," Hatch downplayed the Mormon factor, despite a Gallup poll published in March that said 17 percent of voters would not vote for a Mormon.

Twice he emphasized that Mormons are Christians, though many Christian religions disagree.

"I can't do much about the bigots," he said, "but I can do a lot about people who worry about a Mormon being in political office by explaining that we're Christian people. We live good lives. We try to do what's right."

He echoes the church's positions in his anti-abortion stand and his gay-bashing. He once said -- and later apologized for saying -- the Democrats are the party of homosexuals and abortion. Earlier this month, he told Republicans at a Utah convention they can be proud since "we don't have the gays or lesbians with us."

Mike Russell, spokesman for the 1.8 million-member Christian Coalition, called Hatch a "solid conservative" who is part of a wide field of candidates who can "excite religious conservatives."

But Russell's comments also reveal some strains.

"The Mormon faith is obviously not evangelical doctrine," he said, "but that does not mean that these kinds of candidates can't do well with our constituents."

Hatch probably would be called upon to explain the church's polygamous roots, which recently have drawn national attention, and longstanding perceptions that Mormonism is a cult.

"It's obviously a factor if he begins to get attention," said Lewis Wolfson, an American University communications professor and former Washington-based political journalist. "The question is whether a Mormon can ignore his own church on some core issues that he would have to face as president."

There is ample evidence Hatch's faith suffuses his work. A typical morning for Hatch begins at 5:30. He reads the Bible in his Vienna, Va., home before breakfast. Later, in his Senate office, his mostly Mormon staff might pray together. And Hatch has consistently pushed for religious protection laws in Congress.

West also said "the cult thing" could surface later.

"If he became a serious candidate, that could become an issue, certainly among evangelical Christians, because they do take that approach that it is a cult," West said. "It will come out in questions on abortion and homosexuals."

Roger Porter, a former White House aide in the Bush administration who now teaches at Harvard, doubts Hatch's faith will play a significant role in the campaign early on.

"There is a much higher degree of acceptance of a variety of religious viewpoints today than there has ever been at any previous point in our political history," said Porter, who is LDS.

Hatch has distributed books and videos about Mormonism to Senate colleagues during the Christmas holidays. He spent the customary two years as a missionary for his faith. And he occasionally boasts of his ministerial effects on other politicians, such as Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Religion could surface later in the race, according to Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism was raised as a campaign issue when he challenged Kennedy for a Senate seat in Massachusetts in 1994. Romney now heads the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.

"When and if [Hatch] reaches the stage where he looks like a contender . . . then there may be the interest on the part of some to raise it as an issue. And it will backfire if it's raised. . . . It is a losing proposition to try and use religion as a basis for political [advantage]," Romney said.

One Utah political scientist believes religion will play a key role for Hatch in the West -- especially California.

"He will do better than expected and add some impetus to his race. The Mormons in California will make him a real candidate," predicted Rod Julander, who heads Weber State University's political science department and is vice-chair of the Utah Democratic Party.

The "Mormon factor" will not be an issue addressed by the LDS Church. Spokesman Dale Bills said church officials would have no comment on Hatch's bid for president since "the church wants to remain strictly neutral" and "does not endorse either candidates or political parties."

Church prophet and founder Joseph Smith ran for president in 1844 to protest what he felt was government oppression of Mormons. "There was no thought . . . he would be elected," wrote former church President Joseph Fielding Smith, "but it gave to them an opportunity to express their feelings, and to sustain a candidate who would advocate their rights against oppression."

Three other Mormons have sought the White House.

In 1968, the late Michigan Gov. George Romney, Mitt's father, ran for the Republican nomination but withdrew on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. Romney was accused during the campaign of feeling that he had a pipeline to God, said his son. "My father responded that anyone can have a pipeline to God -- just get on your knees."

The late Morris Udall, a 30-year Democratic congressman from Arizona, ran unsuccessfully in 1976 in the Democratic presidential primaries.

And in 1992, James "Bo" Gritz, a decorated Green Beret commander in the Vietnam War, became the Populist Party's candidate for president.

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