06/07/2007 08:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Thomas B Edsall: Will Anti-Mormon Sentiment Cost Romney GOP Nomination?

Manchester, New Hampshire

A group of about 75 potential Republican primary voters showed up at the Institute of Art here on Wednesday evening for what was billed as an "Ask Mitt Anything" event. The questions ran the gamut from Social Security to gay marriage, but no one in this polite gathering touched on the big question hanging over Romney's candidacy - his religion.

At 60, the former Massachusetts Governor looks like a graying lifeguard, chiseled chin, posture perfect, hair slicked back in glossy waves. Here, as almost everywhere, he disarmed the gathering with a self-deprecating story, telling the audience that he had asked his wife if in her wildest dreams she ever thought she would be at his side as he ran for president. "She looked at me and answered, 'You are never in my wildest dreams,'" Romney said, his expression simultaneously modest and gallant.

Dismissed by many in Massachusetts as a lightweight, unlikely to win a second term as governor, Romney stunned disbelievers by raising $23 million for the primary campaign in the first quarter of this year. "People are having a positive reaction to him and are willing to open up a vein for him," said David King, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

On the stump, Romney is turning out to be one smooth candidate, unruffled by the press or by hostile questioners. He fits the description given to the New York Times by a former partner at Bain Capital, where he made his multimillion-dollar fortune: "He was a great presenter, a great spokesman and a great salesman."

Romney currently holds a modest edge among Republicans in Iowa and a more substantial six-point lead in New Hampshire. As he tries to move into a fully competitive position in the national horse race, however, he faces a particularly high hurdle for a candidate seeking to win the backing of social conservatives and the religious right: he is a practicing Mormon.

At the Republican debate here in New Hampshire earlier this week, Romney was questioned about his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked, "What would you like to say to the voters out there tonight about your faith, about yourself and about God?"

Romney was clearly prepared: "Well, President Kennedy some time ago said he was not a Catholic running for president; he was an American running for president. And I'm happy -- a proud member of my faith. You know, I think it's a fair question for people to ask, "What do you believe?" And I think, as you want to understand what I believe, you could recognize that the values that I have are the same values you'll find in faiths across this country.

When he finished, the audience broke out in applause.

If Romney is to rise to the top of the Republican pile, however, it is not at all clear that his debate answer will suffice for key segments of the electorate. "My own opinion is that among the grassroots, Romney is going to have a serious problem. There are deep, theological differences" between traditional Christian denominations and Mormons, said David E. Campbell a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame. A widespread conception -- or misconception -- of Mormons, Campbell said, can be "summed up in a phrase: 'Mormons are not Christian.'"

"It is likely to present him with a challenge in the campaign, especially the GOP primaries," said John Green, Senior Fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Green cited a Pew survey that found a strikingly high percentage of white Evangelicals --39.7 percent -- said they would be "less likely" to vote for a Mormon.

Forty years ago, in 1967, when Mitt's father, George Romney, the governor of Michigan, was running for the Republican presidential nomination, both the Gallup Poll and the Harris Survey posed questions about his religion. The Gallup Poll in April, 1967, asked, "If your party nominated a generally well qualified man for president and he happened to be a Mormon, would you vote for him?" 75 percent said yes, and 17 percent said no, while the rest either did not know or declined to answer.

However, more recent poll data suggests a dangerous trend in voter attitudes toward a Mormon candidate for national office.

In March of this year, the CBS News/New York Times Poll asked: "Do you think most people would vote for a presidential candidate who is a Mormon, or not?" A majority of 54 percent said voters would not. FOX News in February posed the question, "Do you think the United States is ready to elect . . . a Mormon president or not?" A plurality of 48 percent said no while only 40 percent said yes.

Opposition to a Mormon president is most intense among white Protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals - key voters in Republican primaries. The Mormon Church, in the view of many traditional evangelicals, is a "cult" that claims its temporal leader is the voice of God. On its website, the LDS church declares that "the duty of the President of the office of the High Priesthood is to . . . be like unto Moses....yea, to be a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet, having all the gifts of God."

In addition, the LDS church gives scriptural authority to the Book of Mormon, not a part of the standard Old or New Testament. Unlike most traditional Christian denominations, Mormons reject the Trinity and the belief that Jesus was the son of God. Finally, Mormons contend that God was once a man.

Conflicts between Mormons and denominations such as Southern Baptists may be theological, but they also have roots in the competition for souls.

Experts on the Mormon Church generally share the view that rising hostility to the church coincides with the timing of the LDS drive to enlarge church membership beyond Utah and the Mountain West. The Mormon proselytizing effort began in the mid-1960s, just as fundamentalist Christians, including Baptists, Pentecostals and others, began a similar push.

The result was a head-on collision. Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, said Baptists and Mormons "met each other coming and going, trying to make converts." That, she said, "is when you got this major effort by some evangelicals and some ex-Mormons to show that Mormonism wasn't Christian."

At the same time, the LDS Church began to respond to the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s in much the same way as evangelical and fundamentalist groups: by moving sharply to the right, developing a stronger allegiance to the Republican party, and pressing conservative stands on the social-cultural issues.

Mormon political muscle emerged in the culture wars. The LDS provided key financial and lobbying assistance to defeat the ERA in such states as Florida, Virginia and Illinois. Gordon Hinckley, the LDS "First President," issued a statement in 1976 declaring that "We fear [the ERA] will even stifle many God-given feminine instincts. It would strike at the family, humankind's basic institution."

The ERA fight demonstrated the power of Mormons to become a solid political force, voting, making campaign contributions and joining activist networks in support of stands taken by the church leadership.

The increasing social conservatism of the LDS church has reduced some of the tensions with the Christian right. In 1998, the LDS church bankrolled drives in two states, Alaska and Hawaii, to prohibit same-sex marriage. The church gave $500,000 to the Alaska Family Coalition, the lion's share of that organization's $600,000 budget. In Hawaii, the church donated $600,000 to Save Traditional Marriage '98, nearly three quarters of the organization's $845,224 receipts, according to newspaper accounts.

That same financial engine is powering Romney now. Of the $23 million Romney raised in the first three months of this year, a substantial proportion was contributed by Mormons. Fourteen percent, $2.7 million, came from Utah, eclipsing the $2.3 million take from his home state of Massachusetts and more than doubling the $1 million he received from cash-rich Texas. Romney's top fundraising zip code was 84604 in Provo, Utah. In the eyes of some, there is no better political machine than the Mormon Church.

However, it remains to be seen if overlapping conservative positions on social -cultural matters trumps anti-Mormon sentiment among GOP primary voters. If Romney has trouble winning over social conservatives, he will feel increasing pressure to confront the issue of his religion.

If he does, he could easily change just a word or two from JFK's famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960: "I am not the Mormon candidate for President. I am the Republican Party's candidate for President who also happens to be a Mormon. I do not speak for my Church on public matters -- and the Church does not speak for me."