Although it's usually "liberal elites" who are accused of being out of touch with the values, passions and interests of the heartland, when it comes to Mitt Romney and the Mormon question, I am finding that the entire political spectrum, from far right to far left, are in some sort of a passionate group-denial about the fact that as things stand now, millions of Americans are simply not going to vote for him because of his Mormon faith. Of course, Democrats who will be the major beneficiary of this prejudice can be forgiven for not noticing or caring about this issue, but it's the GOP which now has 60 days to come to grips with reality and craft some sort of a strategy to counter this if they have any hope of winning back the presidency.
I wish I could say that I had always known about the major stumbling block that is Mitt Romney's faith simply because I am so in touch with the average American, but that's not the case. Several years back my friend and sometimes client, filmmaker Adam Christing, an expert on the Mormon faith and a member of the Mormon History Association told me that he was going to write and direct a documentary on the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Joseph Smith, called A Mormon President, so named because Smith had run for the presidency in 1844. Adam traveled across America and came back with unbelievable tales of anti-Mormon sentiment that I had simply not understood up until that point.
According to Adam, there are pockets of deep anti-Mormon fervor in several states across the Midwest that are different from the common objections to Mormonism that are most prevalent among devout Christians for whom Mormons clearly fail the theological test that separates Christians from non-Christians. No, this is a different kind of anger, the kind that is passed down from generation to generation, with a generalized feeling that someone somewhere back in history offended someone in their family and they're not going to let go of it.
The other night at a social event, I found myself in the company of three A-list cultural figures, all whose names you'd recognize if you follow media and politics. One was a diehard liberal, one a strong conservative and the other something of a centrist. As we chatted about politics, I told them that in my opinion the Mormon issue was proving to be a powerful problem for many voters and that if Romney were to lose as I believe to be entirely possible, that would be the reason. In unison, they all poo-hooed my thought as though I was from another planet.
But I am from planet earth, and although my friends are very nice people, they are still members of the elite, right, left and center, and either aren't listening to the vox populi or are choosing not to hear what the heartland is saying.
Here are the facts: Mitt Romney looks like a guy whom central casting might send back if asked to produce a president. He is some kind of a conservative who somehow managed to win in a very blue state. He's running against a president who is in the throes of a horrible recession. By any reasonable standard, Romney should be up by anywhere from five to ten points. But he's not. He's down by three or four. And I know the reason why, the reason nobody wants to acknowledge: because he's a Mormon.
Two weekends ago I sat out by the pool and listened to a distant relative tell me that he had made up his mind whom he was going to vote for this election. He is a union man but is fed up with the Democratic party's liberal positions on social issues and just can't pull the lever for Obama. His solution: he's writing in his neighbor's name instead. Why? Because he is a devout Christian and doesn't want to promote the Mormon religion which is what he believes will happen if Romney is elected president.
Last week at a public event held at a church, I listened in amazement as a Q&A session about the election quickly devolved into a discussion of religious dogma when a woman in her late twenties asked an obscure question about Mormon doctrine and wondered aloud how others in the room could in good conscience vote for someone who held such beliefs.
To be sure, many conservative Christian leaders are scrambling to explain to members of their flock that they should be able to separate a candidate's religious beliefs from their politics, but I'm not sure the flock is listening to such sophisticated arguments. Rather, they're going with their gut and with 60 days to go, are trying to decide between writing in their neighbor, staying home altogether or going with the guy whose policies they may not agree with, but who can tell you when and where he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior.
I don't think the elitists in the Republican establishment have any idea that any of this awaits them on Nov. 6 and unless they radically rethink their current approach, which is to pretend this objection doesn't even exist, they're in for a rude awakening come election day. The ugly truth may be that the election of 2012 may not be decided on any high-minded issues that it should be -- the future of health care, of America's role in the world or of the role of government -- but rather, on the fact that for many Americans the Mormon religion is so foreign, so incredibly out of bounds of what is acceptable religious practice, that they would rather elect a man with whom they disagree on the issues they care deeply about, than vote for a Mormon.
If most of my friends on the right, left and center seem to be in willful denial about all of this, I think it's because they want to believe that we are beyond these sorts of prejudices. To be sure we are largely past many of them that have to do with race and gender and many religious differences. But we won't get past the Mormon question by shutting up debate or pretending it doesn't exist and Mitt Romney certainly isn't going to make it to the White House unless he speaks candidly and forthrightly to voters like my distant relative, speaking to and alleviating his fears and prying his vote away from his neighbor.