An evangelical problem?

mitt romneyWhile the 2008 Presidential elections seem a long way off -- and we are still appropriately focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- I found a bit of presidential politics surprisingly refreshing. Here is an article in this month's Washington Monthly on "Mitt Romney's Evangelical Problem." In a country with only one non-Protestant president, the idea of a Mormon president would likely take awhile to get used to, and Amy Sullivan takes the difficult subject of religious doctrine head on. "To evangelicals, Mormonism isn't just another religion. It's a cult," writes Sullivan.

Doug noted last month that The Atlantic touched upon the issue in a Romney profile for its September issue, but not enough attention has been paid to the elephant in the room when it comes to a Romney presidency.

Here's how Sullivan frames it, as an issue of religious tolerance:

Americans have indeed become more religiously tolerant, but the first Mormon to run for president will clearly have to change some minds. In the late 1960s, the percentage of Americans who said they would not vote for a Jewish or Catholic presidential candidate was in the double digits; by 1999, those numbers had fallen to 6 and 4 percent, respectively (roughly the same as the percentage of voters who say they wouldn't vote for a Baptist). Compare that to the 17 percent of Americans who currently say they would have qualms electing a Mormon to the White House. That number hasn't changed one whit since 1967, the year that Romney's father considered a presidential run (he abandoned the effort after making a gaffe about how the military "brainwashed" him into supporting the Vietnam War).

Some of this anti-Mormonism is a fairly fuzzy sort of bias, based mostly on rumors and unfamiliarity and the vague feeling that Mormons are kind of weird. It's a wobbly opposition that can be overcome by good public relations that defuses concerns about the religion and shifts focus to the personality of the candidate. This is how someone like Romney gets elected in a blue state like Massachusetts, where even Republicans are generally tolerant.

Sullivan's perspective is influenced by her childhood. Raised in a Baptist church, she was taught early that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were members of a cult, "a stronghold of Satan."

More from Sullivan:

Evangelical Christians consider Mormonism a threat in a way that Catholicism and even Judaism are not. The LDS Church, they charge, has perverted Christian teachings to create a false religion. As John L. Smith, a Southern Baptist who runs Utah Mission -- an organization that tries to convert Mormons -- told Christianity Today: "Mormonism is either totally true or totally false. If it's true, every other religion in America is false." To be tolerant of Mormonism is to put evangelical Christianity at risk. And to put a Mormon in the White House would be to place a stamp of approval on that faith.

Southern Baptists have been particularly vocal about labeling the LDS Church a "cult." In 1997, the denomination published a handbook and video, both with the title The Mormon Puzzle: Understanding and Witnessing to Latter-day Saints. More than 45,000 of these kits were distributed in the first year; the following year -- in a throwing down of the proselytizing gauntlet -- the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Salt Lake City. Around the same time, a speaker at the denomination's summit on Mormonism declared that Utah was "a stronghold of Satan." When Richard Mouw, president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, tried to repair relations with the LDS community by apologizing on behalf of evangelicals during a speech in the Mormon Tabernacle last year, his conservative brethren lashed out. Mouw had no right, they declared in an open letter, to speak for them or apologize for denouncing Mormon "false prophecies and false teachings."

And if/when the primary race gets nasty, as Sullivan adequately points out, religion will be an issue:

It's likely that Romney's primary opponents and prominent religious leaders will publicly take the high road, remaining mum on the issue of his Mormonism. But, says Marshall Wittman, former political director of the Christian Coalition and later an aide to McCain, "so much in the primaries takes place under the radar. It's never publicly said, but it takes place in emails and word of mouth." The push-poll script writes itself: "Would you be more or less likely to vote for Mitt Romney if you knew he was a Mormon, and that Mormons believe in polygamy?"

Part of my thinking leads me to believe that a Romney campaign would do some good in raising a discussion on who Mormons are and what they believe. The other part of me thinks the political arena is the wrong place for that; it would just get too nasty. One thing is for sure: journalists love the idea of a Romney campaign because of how different it would be, and with the supposed rise in power of the voting bloc known as the evangelical right, the story is all the juicer.

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