THE BLOG
01/08/2012 13:32 BST | Updated 30/09/2012 06:12 BST

Mitt Romney, Mormons and America's Anglo-Saxon Heritage

Mitt Romney's European tour was intended to establish his foreign policy credentials but is deemed by many to be a failure.

Mitt Romney's European tour was intended to establish his foreign policy credentials but is deemed by many to be a failure. This began with a quip by one of Romney's foreign policy advisors that Britain and America share "an Anglo-Saxon heritage" which President Obama doesn't "fully appreciate".

This caused a great furore in the press, especially in the US, and Romney swiftly disavowed the comments. However, there are a number of reasons why these sentiments might resonate with Mitt.

First of all, Romney, like most Mormons, is of predominantly English ancestry. This is rare in a country where the proportion of whites of British ancestry - Scotch-Irish and Scottish as well as English - is no more than a quarter. In fact Salt Lake City, capital of Mormon-majority Utah, is the only city in the US where those of English descent form close to a majority of the population. What the Mormons (Latter-Day Saints) and Utah in fact represent is a time capsule of New England society before the Irish Catholics and other non-WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) immigrants began arriving in force. The coastal South, the other main region of the country where there is a concentration of ethnic English, was a plantation society. There African-Americans are close to a majority.

While immigrants, initially Irish and German, diluted the Anglo-Saxon inheritance in the northeast, midwest and west, Utah stood apart. The oddness of the Mormon (LDS) religion, and Utah's geographic isolation, helped preserve a vanishing Anglo-Saxon heritage - a fragment of old New England and English immigrant ancestry. In much of America, white Protestants with Anglo-Saxon surnames identify themselves as simply 'American' or 'white' on the census. Yet the Mormon fascination with saving the souls of the deceased, which is responsible for the LDS church's fascination with genealogy, makes Mormons more aware than other WASP Americans of their Anglo-Saxon ancestry.

But if this were the end of the story, the American commentariat would not be in such a tizzy over the Anglo-Saxon comments uttered by a Romney advisor. To understand the emotions Romney evokes, one has to appreciate that there have always been two sides to American identity. One is the universalism of the American Constitution and the idea of America as a beacon to immigrants. The other is the quieter belief that the United States is an 'Anglo' country. Many of the Founding Fathers, notably Thomas Jefferson, believed that Americans were descended from the freedom-loving Anglo-Saxon yeoman farmers who had been oppressed under the Norman yoke in England after 1066. In the late nineteenth century this Anglo-Saxon myth was pervasive among top American historians. So much so that Frederick Jackson Turner's view in 1893 that the frontier environment and not Anglo-Saxon genes lay behind American greatness was deemed revolutionary.

From the 1840s until the election of America's first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, in 1960, a simmering culture war pitted the white Protestant majority in the countryside and provincial cities against the 'foreign', Catholic-majority cities of the eastern seaboard. Reflecting the views of president Teddy Roosevelt in the early twentieth century, the Dutch and Scotch-Irish were considered Anglo-Saxons or 'old stock' Americans, though Germans and Irish Catholics were not.

In the North, the old stock voted Republican and Catholics largely Democrat. The Prohibition of alcohol in 1920 and the upsurge of the multi-million member, northern-based Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s can only be understood in this context. In literature and in film, lead characters were uniformly WASP well into the 1960s, even where, like John Wayne or Captain Kirk, they were played by Irish or Jewish actors. So pervasive was this that the countercultural Bob Dylan likewise saw fit to anglicise his name. Only radical pluralists sought to purge the nation of its Anglo cultural core while both New Deal liberals like Franklin Roosevelt and conservatives like Sam Ervin defended the validity of this aspect of national identity.

Today, the WASP ethnic core has transmuted into the white 'Anglo' core. Membership criteria have been relaxed to include those of any European ancestry bar Spanish, and Catholics and Jews are as welcome as Protestants. Hispanics, Asians and blacks, however, can only gain entry through intermarriage. Yet the battle lines remain: the Left seeks a multicultural America shorn of Anglo roots while conservatives like Mr. Romney would defend America's Anglo culture as essential to the country's essence.

As the late Samuel Huntington, a descendant of New England Puritans, opined, Creed or no Creed, if the United States was settled by Spaniards it would be Argentina or Mexico, not America. Huntington didn't mean that all Americans had to be Anglo-Saxon, only that the culture of the country into which immigrants assimilate was largely established by the colonial settlers, of whom 65%were English, rising to nearly 100% in the influential New England region.

Meanwhile, it has yet to be conclusively demonstrated that Anglo-Saxons have released their grip on the White House. John F. Kennedy was and remains an anomaly among 46 presidents, since Reagan, George Bush Senior and Junior, Clinton and yes, Barack Obama, are all of WASP descent. So - despite Mitt Romney's advisor - regardless of who wins the presidency, the Anglo-Saxon connection will triumph.