11/18/2011 10:56 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

We Have A Mormon Senate Leader. Can We Have A Mormon President?

Imagine this: a heated political race between a Bay Stater and his opponents for a powerful national position, where the clean-cut, smooth-talking Mitt Romney increasingly looks like the possible winner. But then begin the murmurs of religion.

"Rich white Mormon," a close associate of an opponent calls him. "A member of the white boys club," says a relative of another front-runner, making a thinly-veiled allusion to the priesthood of the Latter-day Saints church, which excluded blacks until a little over a generation ago. The usually cool-faced Romney goes on defense, barking that "religious bigotry" is creeping into the campaign.

It happened in 1994, when Romney, a successful businessman and a political novice, was in a tight race to represent Massachusetts in the Senate against Democratic incumbent Ted Kennedy. Romney lost the election, but it was just the beginning of his "Mormon problem."

Fast-forward 17 years: A Republican presidential front-runner, Romney's religion still dogs him. As his opponents race to court evangelical Christians in Iowa ahead of the state's influential January caucuses, Romney has largely stayed away from the Hawkeye State. In a meeting with donors this month, Romney predicted an Iowa loss. That's despite polls of likely caucus-goers that show him virtually tied for the win with Herman Cain, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Newt Gingrich.

When Romney ran for the Republican nomination four years ago, he confidently crisscrossed Iowa after having won the Ames Straw Poll the prior summer. But during the caucuses, the state's strong bloc of evangelical voters catapulted fellow evangelical and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to the win. Romney placed second and dropped out of the race the next month. A Des Moines Register pre-caucus poll showed that almost half of Republican caucus-goers were either born-again or fundamentalist Christians. Three out of four said it was important to agree with the religious beliefs of their candidate. When it came to Romney's Mormon religion, they clearly didn't.

This time around, Romney's campaign has had to face from day one the question of whether Americans will elect a Mormon, as well as jabs from close associates of his opponents. That includes a prominent pastor and friend of Texas Gov. Rick Perry that last month called his religion "a cult." It also includes a widely-circulated Politico report in which a senior advisor to President Barack Obama said his reelection campaign planned to attack nominee Romney as "weird." The article set off a storm of commentary, questioning if the word was code for "Mormon" (Obama senior advisor David Axelrod later called the report "garbage").

Polls have repeatedly showed that a significant portion of Americans are uncomfortable entertaining the idea of a Mormon as president. The unease increases among evangelicals, a key bloc that has voted Republicans to national office since the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s. The reasons vary. For some, "Mormon" evokes images of polygamy, though the dominant Latter-day Saints Mormon denomination ended the practice more than a century ago. For many Christians, Mormons' unique beliefs about the nature of God and Jesus Christ, who Mormons believed wandered ancient America after his resurrection, is troubling.

With Mormons making up less than two-percent of the nation's population, America's "Mormon problem" may simply be that most people have never met a Mormon. While the United States' LDS church has 6 million members and is the nation's second-fastest growing religion, Mormons are still concentrated in a handful of western states. Subtract the Mormons of Utah, California, Idaho, Arizona, Texas and Washington, and the nation's LDS church members stand at just over 2 million. In Iowa, a crucial primary state of more than 3 million people, there are only 24,000 Mormons.

What many Americans may not know is that Mormons already play key roles in local and national government. In fact, there are 15 Mormons in Congress, including powerful Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is Senate Majority Leader. Most of these officials come from those western states with sizable Mormon populations. Most are also Republicans and won office without any significant controversy over religion.

So what sets Mitt Romney apart? Why has the "Mormon problem" been his alone?

"The office of President is different. Americans expect the president to embody the ideals of the entire nation more than their local congressperson or senator," says Robert P. Jones of Public Religion Research Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group that has conducted several surveys on Romney's Mormon image.

"When someone knows a Mormon, has neighbors who are Mormon, then its more likely they will support a Mormon for office," Jones says. "But most Mormons are still concentrated in the West. When we ask people if they have had an interaction with a Mormon, seven out of 10 say they seldom or never have."

According to a survey Jones' organization released this month, more than 40 percent of Americans say they would be uncomfortable with a Mormon as president. Since July, the number of evangelicals who would support Romney has dropped from 63 percent to 49 percent. Meanwhile, the number of evangelicals who can identify him as Mormon has increased. And despite the Romney campaign's attempts to avoid spotlighting the candidate's religion -- if at all, Romney will refer to his "church" and "religion" without using the word "Mormon" -- the issue is bound to continue getting attention.

"There is a precedent for this deep strain of anti-Mormonism," Patrick Q. Mason, a professor of Mormon Studies at Claremont University outside Los Angeles, says. "It starts right at the beginning."

The first Mormon to run for office was the founder of the Latter-day Saints movement, Joseph Smith, Jr.. A mayor of a small Illinois town, he ran for office as an independent in 1844 because he was fed up with the persecution of his followers. His weak six-month candidacy was cut short when he was killed by mob that was angry at him for shutting down a town newspaper that had accused him of polygamy.

One of the first Mormons to be elected to national office was B.H. Roberts, a church officer who won a Congressional position as a Utah Democrat in 1898, but was refused a seat by the House of Representatives because he was a polygamist. A special election was called to replace him. A few years later, Reed Smoot, a powerful member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles governing body, was elected to represent Utah as a senator. Suspicions over whether Smoot was a polygamist (he was not) and whether his allegiance was to his church or country led to four years of Senate hearings before he was allowed to serve in 1907. He went on to several reelections, serving for 30 years.

"There has historically been a suspicion about the church's position on polygamy," Mason says.

The LDS church banned new plural marriages in 1890. Today, the six-million member church is the by far the largest Mormon denomination in the United States, but small polygamous sects have received attention through the criminal case against fundamentalist leader Warren Jeffs and television shows such as "Big Love" and "Sister Wives".

Recognizing its image problem, the LDS church has launched a multi-million dollar TV, billboard and online campaign over the last year called "I'm Mormon," which showcases the Mormons as diverse everyday Americans and steers clear of images of missionaries in white shirts and black pants, or talk of theology. As talk of Romney's Mormonism has increased, so have the church's thousands of ad buys. At the same time, church officials have attempted to avoid being seen as influencing politics by not buying ads in key primary states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

On his Mormon image, Romney has been clear about his 42-year monogamous marriage. On theology, he has made a point in his career to say that he believes in the Bible and in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. For most Christians, that's not enough. Evangelical pastors often cite the Trinity, central to Christian theology, as an example. While most Christians believe in a single God manifested as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Mormons believe in the Trinity as three distinct beings called the "Godhead" that are "united as one in purpose." They also believe in additional prophets, such as the religion's founder, and revere additional scripture such as the Book of Mormon. Last month, a Southern Baptist-affiliated organization called Lifeway Research released a survey of 1,000 pastors from across denominations in which they were asked if Mormons were Christians. Three out of four said no.

Romney is one of the few Mormon politicians to face such religious scrutiny.

In the last century, Mormons from California to Florida have been elected to Congress and appointed to national office. When Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, vied for the Republican presidential ticket in 1967 and lost badly to Richard Nixon, his Mormon faith rarely came up. A notable exception was questions concerning the church's exclusion of blacks from leaderships roles. Ronald Reagan may have had the most pro-Mormon presidency. Among the Mormons in his administration were the Secretary of Education, Treasurer, Solicitor General, and current Republican presidential candidate and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., who was a White House staff assistant. When Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) ran for the Republican nomination in 2000, he gained minimal support in primaries and talk of his Mormonism was slim to none.

So while Romney isn't the first Mormon to seek higher office, he is the first Mormon with a serious chance of being the nation's next president. And while a figure such a Reid wields considerable national power, he never had to appeal to the wider nation the way Romney must to be elected.

Reid's long political career has always been based in Mormon-friendly Nevada, where the 11-percent Mormon population is about equal that of Mainline Protestants as well as Evangelical Protestants. He is also seen as less entrenched in the church.

That doesn't mean Reid, who was raised agnostic, is shy about his religion. He keeps a a copy of the Book of Mormon in his Capitol Hill office and spoke proudly about his college-age conversion during a 2007 speech at Brigham Young University. Yet, Reid has never held high church positions like Romney. From 1981 to 1994, Romney was bishop of a Massachusetts congregation and then a stake president, similar to the head of a Catholic diocese. Church members have also internally criticized Reid for his party and politics. His relationship with the church's leadership became stained when he said its push to outlaw same-sex marriage in California in 2008 was a waste of time. On the other hand, Romney has gone from having more liberal positions on abortion and gay rights to being in tune with conservative positions that align with the church's views as well as those of the broader Republican base.

"His religion is very important to Senator Reid, but he doesn't wear it on his sleeve. He tries to keep religion separate from politics, though he always had a religious base of Mormons in Nevada," says Jim Manley, a former chief spokesman for Reid who now works as a lobbyist.

Reid has largely sailed to electoral wins without any question of his faith, but during a heated race against Republican challenger Sharron Angle last October, Angle's former pastor called Mormonism "kooky" and a "cult." Unlike similar comments against Romney, the pastor's words had little effect. Angle's campaign quickly distanced her from the pastor and a spokesman said she "shares the same values with other active Christians, including those of the Latter-day Saints community."

Gov. Huntsman has largely avoided that sort of skepticism in his current campaign because he is not a front-runner. His statements distancing himself from the religion haven't hurt. Huntsman, who like Romney comes from a lineage of powerful church leaders and served as a Mormon missionary, has called his faith "tough to define" and said he gets "satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies."

During this campaign, Romney has kept relatively quiet about his religion and rarely refers to it by name. After the Rev. Robert Jeffress, a prominent Texas megachurch pastor, called Mormonism a "cult" at a high-profile conservative gathering in Washington, D.C., Romney did not defend his religion. Instead, he called for civility and said he doesn't believe "divisiveness based upon religion has a place in this country."

At a town hall in Iowa last month, an audience member asked Romney if he would correct "misinformation" about Mormonism. "I don't think so," Romney said before adding that he believes more Americans are interested in electing someone "who's the most capable of getting our country going again, with strong values and a strong economy and a strong military."

While the campaign is largely avoiding talk of religion, it is targeting evangelicals in a different way.

"The focus should be on common values. Evangelicals have been collaborating with, partnering with conservative Jews, Catholics and Mormons in particular for decades on issues such as life and marriage and fighting pornography," says Mark DeMoss, a veteran public relations consultant for prominent evangelicals and an adviser to the Romney campaign. "A conservative evangelical, as far as values are concerned, has far more in common with more Mormons than he does with a liberal Southern Baptist."

"If a pollster asks me, 'Could you vote for an evangelical as a President,' I wouldn't say yes, I would say, 'Which one?'" says DeMoss, who himself is an evangelical. "I think to be fair to Mitt Romney, we are not talking a generic Mormon or a hypothetical Mormon, we are talking about this one."

The focus on values, character and the economy to the avoidance of religion is a contrast to Romney's prior campaigns.

As the then-Massachusetts governor considered his first presidential run in 2006, DeMoss orchestrated a meeting at the Romney home to introduce him to prominent evangelicals and religious conservatives such as the Revs. Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell and Richard Land, who heads the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. This time, no such meeting is in the works.

Neither is a "Faith in America" speech, such as the one Romney famously gave at the George H.W. Bush Library in Texas in late 2007 after a torrent of questions about his religion. The speech was likened to that of John F. Kennedy in 1960, when he vowed to not let his Catholic religion and church dictate policy. In Texas, Romney spoke of America's regard for religious freedom, tolerance and patriotism.

"I believe in my Mormon faith and endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers. I will be true to them and to my beliefs," said Romney, hoping to resurrect his ailing campaign.

"Some people believe such a confession of faith will sink my candidacy," Romney continued. "If they are right, so be it."

While Romney remains mum on Mormonism, other Republicans in the presidential field have saved a few words for religion.