10/09/2011 03:47 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2011

The Mormon in the Room

Why is Mitt Romney so unloved by the Republican base?

Even after Rick Perry's meteoric rise and fall in the polls, the main beneficiary of the Texas governor's stumbles has been Herman Cain, not Romney.

In a series of polls over the last few days, Cain, a man who has never held elective office, a virtually unknown person in the national political scene until his appearance on the multiple debate stages, has surged.

In the latest CBS News poll, Cain actually ties with Romney, 17% to 17%, even as Rick Perry falls from 23% to 12% compared to the same poll 2 weeks earlier.

So where's the love for Mitt, the presumptive GOP frontrunner? Shouldn't the GOP's vaunted "coronation" process, where the perceived best candidate is pushed forward by the establishment and base of the party towards the nomination, much like George W. Bush was in 2000, be creating a similar momentum for Romney?

The conventional answer goes something like this: Romney has changed so many of his core positions after his governorship of Massachusetts, and his subsequent multiple runs for president, that voters are suspicious of what he really believes.

Is Romney pro-choice? He was, but not anymore. Did he support the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military? Yes, that is, until he was against it. Gun laws, same. Immigration reform, he was for it until he discovered that you can't be nominated in today's post-Reagan GOP unless you advocate ever harsher anti-immigrant measures that, as in the case of Arizona and Alabama, amount to lightly disguised ethnic cleansing strategies.

And Social Security? When Perry first zoomed up the GOP preference polls -- and his nonstrategic insistence that the federal program that nearly wiped out poverty among senior citizens over the last 7 decades is nothing more than a gigantic Bernie Madoff-style scam -- Romney abandoned his Social Security privatization views for the more Florida-friendly new role as the Social Security champion.

While an evolution of your views over time is a sign of a learning brain, incorporating new facts as they are discovered, Romney's whole-cloth shift in so many fundamental issues of deep ideological import to Republicans is inherently suspect.

But this may not be Romney's biggest problem in creating an emotional bond with the base of the GOP. While the former Massachusetts Governor has morphed into a Southern-strategy friendly Conservative, he can't fully escape who he is. There are some factors that are beyond the power of focus-group driven repositioning.

Romney, of course, is a devout Mormon. His family is steeped in the Mormon tradition. And no one has remotely questioned Romney's sincerity in this regard. And that is the problem.

Romney is the Mormon in the room. His religion crashes directly into Evangelical Christian dogma. As CNN reported, Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, who has endorsed Rick Perry, has called the Mormon church a "cult."

In a recent speech before the conservative Values Voters Summit, Jeffress unloaded on the Mormon faith. Speaking to CNN after his appearance, Jeffress said, "I think Mitt Romney's a good, moral man, but I think those of us who are born-again followers of Christ should always prefer a competent Christian to a competent non-Christian like Mitt Romney. So that's why I'm enthusiastic about Rick Perry."

This is the ultimate dog whistle for Evangelicals. Jeffress is clearly making the case that Romney is a "non-Christian" and therefore not fit to be the President of the United States. In the same interview Jeffress asserted that Romney "doesn't embrace the historical tenets of evangelical Christianity."

And this is not a new problem from Romney. Back in 2007 during Romney's first run for the GOP nomination, the televangelist Bill Keller penned a missive to Evangelicals that is as clear as can be. It was titled "A vote for Romney is a vote for Satan."

Conservative firebrand and electoral marketing wiz Richard Viguerie published on his site in May an equally devastating claim:

55 percent of conservative activists and Tea Partiers polled by Richard Viguerie's responded that they, 'would vote for a third-party or independent candidate' if Romney were the nominee.

In simple terms, the most conservative Evangelical leaders are casting Romney as the "Other." Not as bad as a Kenyan Muslim to be sure, but in the same genre of unacceptable candidates.

Beyond the theological issues, the political implications of this line of thought are devastating for Romney. No Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan paid homage to the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority in the 1980 election, has made it to the White House without carrying the Evangelical vote by dominant margins.

The idea that in 21st century America a person can be disqualified for the presidency based on his religion is outrageous. Religious prejudice against Romney is as repulsive as the Tea Party's frequent flirtations with anti-Obama racism.

Romney by all accounts is a decent man. He should be given the chance to compete for the presidency on the merits of his ideas -- his religion is not a legitimate criteria to evaluate his fitness for the presidency.

And those who seek to create a theocratic test for presidential candidates should spend some time reading the U.S. Constitution. Article 6 clearly states:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

From the very beginning of our Republic, the Founders' worried about the kind of religious intolerance now being directed at Mitt Romney. As President George Washington wrote:

If I could conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded, that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.

Robert Jeffress' anti-Mormon bigotry is exactly the kind of "spiritual tyranny" that George Washington warned us about. It has no place in American politics and GOP primary voters should reject it for what it is: un-American.