National Opinions

The controversy over Romney's faith

Nonevangelicals have taken notice, too. Some recent negative publicity surrounding Mormons, including Jon Krakauer's best-selling 2003 book "Under the Banner of Heaven" (about a murder in a fundamentalist Mormon family) as well as crackdowns on fringe polygamist communities in Utah and Arizona, did little to help the Mormon image. And this summer saw the release of "September Dawn," a movie billed as the true story of a Mormon-led massacre of California-bound pioneers in 1857. Press materials note that the slaughter happened on Sept. 11 of that year and that it marked "the first known act of religious terrorism on U.S. soil."

All of which helps explain why the February Gallup poll shows that Americans are less likely to support a Mormon for president than they were in the late 1960s -- even though they are now much more likely to vote for a female, black or Jewish candidate.

But Romney's Mormon woes also stem from the secular liberalism that took root in the 1960s. The left- leaning New Republic questioned the fitness of a Mormon to serve as president in a January cover story. Another Gallup survey found that liberals represent the ideological group most wary of Mormonism, with 61 percent holding an unfavorable view of the faith.

The fact that voters now seriously consider a presidential candidate's faith isn't necessarily a bad thing. The particulars of a president's religious beliefs and habits could affect his or her actions in critical ways. "It was totally proper to ask what role Orthodox Judaism would play if Joe Lieberman became vice president and there was a nuclear attack on Shabbos," Wolfe said. "There's nothing anti-Semitic about that."

So far, however, the opposition to Romney seems inspired not by fear about how his faith would influence his actions, but by the mere fact that he's a Mormon. A Gallup poll last winter showed that 46 percent of Americans have a generally unfavorable view of Mormonism.

Much of that sentiment undoubtedly springs from a "kookiness factor" based on misperception, such as the idea that mainstream Mormons still practice polygamy. (The church outlawed the practice more than 110 years ago.) Americans also may look doubtfully on the belief that Joseph Smith Jr. translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates he uncovered in New York state in 1827. But that's hardly enough to justify not voting for Romney.

Like his father, Mitt Romney may never make it to the White House.

But if his faith is what holds him back, then a nation founded on religious tolerance will have proved itself less accepting than it was four decades ago -- when a Mormon lost for reasons relating entirely to this world, not the next.

Gilgoff is political editor at beliefnet.com and the author of "The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America are Winning the Culture War." E-mail him at dgilgoff@beliefnetstaff.com.

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