Is a Mormon the top candidate for the religious right?

mitt romneyLet's get the ball rolling on picking the religious right's candidate for the 2008 presidential campaign. The Economist, a no-slouch publication when it comes to American politics, has anointed Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on the basis that both Sens. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and George Allen, R-Va., have taken themselves out of contention. Frist is out for poor Senate leadership and Allen for, well, you know. It's an interesting hypothesis, and it will be interesting whether the Romney for President campaign gains momentum on the religious right. My guess is that we are going to have to wait till after Nov. 7, which seems like an eternity right now.

The big hiccup in Romney's path is of course his Mormon faith, which was delightfully depicted by The Economist in a cartoon that I won't reproduce on this blog because I don't need the magazine's art editor breathing down my neck. The Economist does not demur from highlighting the difficulties Romney will face in receiving acceptance among conservative evangelicals, but presents a compelling case for why it is possible:

Yet Mr Romney is a devoted Mormon -- a former bishop, no less -- at a time when religion is playing a growing role in American politics. Opinion polls suggest that anti-Mormon feeling is one of the most enduring religious prejudices in America. An LATimes/Bloomberg poll in June found that 37% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate; other polls put the figure at 17%.

Anti-Mormon feeling is particularly strong among Bible-believing Christians, a vital part of the Republican base. Many evangelicals regard Mormonism as nothing more than a cult: and a cult, moreover, that is based not only on a false theology but also on a willingness to tamper with the inerrant word of God that is the Bible.

mitt romney2Oh the joys political reporters will encounter in covering a Romney candidacy. First of all, as Doug pointed out in an e-mail to me, being a bishop in the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not quite like being a bishop in, say, the Church of England. One should not expect to see any photos of a President Romney in the Oval Office dressed like the CofE's Bishop of London. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is a former Mormon bishop and he has also run for president.

What The Economist did get right is the bigger picture -- the evangelical right is flexible and far from monolithic. While some are still upset over President Reagan's divorce and, how should I put it, unusual theological views, a huge majority were OK with it. Even George W. Bush was not the religious right's ideal choice. Britons may fuss over Cherie Blair's Catholicism, but Americans are less inclined to think of their political leaders as also being religious leaders. Those in the religious right care more about issues when it comes to their politicians.

The potential harshness that religious conservatives could show to a Romney candidacy should not be underestimated, though. Doctrinally, some mainline Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians consider the group a cult. But for whom will this matter when it comes to issues like abortion and same-sex marriage? What will Pat Robertson and James Dobson say? What will mainline Protestant denominations say?

Will Romney be up-front about these issues? Will he publicly affirm all of the beliefs of Mormonism? Or will he downplay them and hope nobody notices?

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