The Mormon Factor

    Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential front-runner (at least on paper), is slated to officially declare his ’12 bid tomorrow, and we all assume that his authorship of mandated Massachusetts health care will be the prime drag on his primary season prospects. But let’s not forget his other big problem – which surfaced briefly yesterday, during an interview on NBC.When asked whether his Mormon faith could be an albatross in the race (an issue that has dogged him for the past five years), he naturally insisted that conservative Christian voters will not punish him on the basis of his religion. In his words, “The great propensity of individuals of faith say, ‘We’re not electing a pastor-in-chief, we’re electing a commander-in-chief.'”But Romney never clicked in the ’08 primaries with “individuals of faith,” and there’s scant evidence that they like him any better now. Evangelical Christians comprise roughly half of the Republican primary electorate, according to state exit polls, and barely 20 percent of them voted for Romney in crucial ’08 primaries. In South Carolina – always a key early contest, a state where six in 10 Republican primary voters are evangelicals – only 11 percent chose Romney as their preferred ’08 nominee. Since 1980, no Republican has won the party nomination without first winning the South Carolina primary. Where’s the evidence that conservative South Carolinians want Romney to be the ’12 nominee?It would be wrong to suggest, of course, that evangelicals oppose Romney only because of his faith. Like many other Republican voters, they dislike his flip flopping. They’re well aware that he first sold himself as a moderate in Massachusetts before orchestrating a late conversion to social conservatism. They’re also having trouble warming up to a demeanor that seems best fit for a corporate boardroom. But the religion factor is also very real. Southern Baptists and Pentecostals, in particular, are hostile to Mormonism as a point of principle. They dismiss it as a cult, a false Christianity. On the eve of the ’08 primaries, at least 30 percent of all voters told national pollsters that they could never support a Mormon. Regardless of whether we might think that this is unfair to Romney (who has never even hinted that his faith would ever guide his governance), it’s a fact of political life that this hostility needs to be factored into the nomination math.Granted, the roots of Mormonism do seem weird to those of us outside the faith. Romney does apparently believe (on some level) that an American named Joseph Smith dug up a book of golden plates, long buried in a hillside, in 1827, with the aid of an angel named Moroni; that these plates, written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, detailed the precepts of the true Christian faith; that Jesus visited North America after the resurrection; that the Garden of Eden was really in Missouri.But this is where I feel compelled to defend Romney. Most religions look weird to non-believers. Americans who subscribe to a faith tend to accept their precepts metaphorically or symbolically, not literally. I doubt that we would reject a Jewish presidential candidate simply because it was written that Moses parted the Red Sea. I doubt that we would reject a Catholic candidate simply because it is said in the faith that the wafer eaten on Sunday is from the actual body of Jesus. It seems similarly unfair to reject Romney based on an assumption that he literally believes Joseph Smith that Smith translated the hieroglyphics with the help of decoder glasses and a stovepipe hat.Maybe the religion factor will fizzle. Romney can skate by if the evangelicals split their votes among several primary season candidates (Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, maybe Michele Bachmann, maybe Sarah Palin). But his worst nightmare next winter is that most evangelical voters could unite behind one rival – such as Tim Pawlenty, an ex-Catholic who converted to evangelical Christianity and who has been assiduously working that community in Iowa. That scenario could stall Romney’s candidacy at the starting gate.It’s ironic that so many evangelicals share this gut hostility toward Mormonism – given the fact that they often claim to be the victims of religious bigotry. But hey, nobody ever said politics is fair.

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