12/01/2011 02:01 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2012

Romney's Mormonism a Tough Sell for Millennials

Last month, evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress' disparaging comments about the Mormon faith generated heated debate about whether Mitt Romney would, or should, be dogged by a "Mormon problem" among Republican primary voters. The recently released American Values Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute, reveals that there is serious ambivalence about his Mormon faith among white evangelical Protestants, a critical constituency in the Republican primaries. Nearly half (47 percent) of white evangelical Protestant voters say they would be at least somewhat uncomfortable with a Mormon becoming president.

But PRRI's recent survey also reveals that if Romney becomes the Republican nominee for president, he will be confronted by another, perhaps even more challenging, "M" problem: A majority of Millennial voters (ages 18-29) report being uncomfortable with the idea of a Mormon president.

The discomfort with a Mormon president among the Millennial generation is at first glance somewhat surprising. Millennials are the most diverse generation-racially, ethnically and religiously-in the nation's history and are generally more accepting of religious pluralism than Americans overall. By a margin of more than 20 points, Millennial voters are significantly less likely than seniors (ages 65 an older) to say they would be uncomfortable with a Muslim president (50 percent vs. 74 percent) or an atheist president (56 percent vs. 77 percent). Yet, when it comes to Mormons, these numbers are reversed: A majority of Millennial voters (54 percent) report being at least somewhat uncomfortable with a Mormon president, compared to less than four-in-ten (39 percent) senior voters.

So why are Millennials so ill at ease with the notion of a Mormon president? Given their broader acceptance of minority religious groups, Millennials' anxiety over a Mormon president likely has less to do with the religious beliefs of Mormons (which is more at the heart of the matter for white evangelical Protestant misgivings) and more to do with the perceived political profile of Mormons and the LDS Church.

Generally, Millennials are more likely than the general population to identify as liberal, an attribute that correlates with higher rates of discomfort with a Mormon president. As a recent research note from PRRI plainly illustrates, Mormons are nearly identical to white evangelical Protestants on crucial policy issues, and their conservatism is well-known.

But Millennials' concern about a Mormon president may also be connected to a particular political activity of the Mormon Church that can be traced back to 2008, when leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints prominently supported California's Proposition 8, a proposal that sought to eliminate the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry. The fact that the LDS Church and its members devoted considerable resources on a cause the runs counter to the values of most Millennials is apt to loom large in Millennials' relatively short political memory.

As PRRI discovered in our recent report, "Generations at Odds: The Millennial Generation and the Future of Gay and Lesbian Rights," Millennials ardently support gay and lesbian rights. There is at least a 20-point generation gap between Millennials and seniors (age 65 and up) on every measure in the survey concerning gay rights, including same-sex marriage, civil unions and employment discrimination protections. Most importantly, the survey also found that support for gay and lesbian rights is a crucial symbolic issue for young adults. Nearly seven-in-10 (69 percent) Millennials agree that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.

As I wrote a few months ago, in a dozen years, when today's Millennials will be participating more fully in the political process, all GOP primary candidates will likely need to moderate their positions to be more supportive of gay and lesbian rights. While Romney's Millennial problem is unlikely to haunt him in the 2012 primaries, it has the potential to be a liability in a close general election, if Millennials get energized enough to turn out again at record levels as they did in 2008.

This article was originally posted by Dr. Jones on his blog 'Figuring Faith' at the Washington Post's On Faith section.