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Why Mitt's Mormonism doesn't matter

Steve Chapman

October 4, 2012

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Mormonism is a minority sect once persecuted by mainstream American Christians for its unconventional doctrines and practice of polygamy. It is still viewed by many as an odd cult. But a Mormon is the Republican nominee for president, and he can take consolation that if he loses, it will not be because of his religion.

That may be the biggest surprise of this election year. Freedom of religion is a constitutional principle, but it has long coexisted with widespread hostility toward certain faiths. When he ran four years ago, Mitt Romney's affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a novelty that looked to be a liability.

Running against him then, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — an ordained Southern Baptist minister — asked, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" Huckabee went on to trounce Romney in the Iowa caucuses.

During that campaign, in an effort to allay suspicions, particularly among evangelicals, Romney gave a speech announcing, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind." He ostentatiously aligned himself with Christian conservatives by denouncing those "intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism."

Mormonism has gotten attention once again, thanks in part to the Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon." But his previous candidacy apparently inoculated him against sectarian distrust. This time, Romney has been largely silent on his religion, which has become a practical irrelevancy.

"The vast majority of those who are aware of Romney's faith say it doesn't concern them," said the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in summarizing a July poll. Of those who know he's a Mormon, only 19 percent said it made them uncomfortable.

You might think that starting off with a big handicap among one out of every five voters would be a dismal portent. But Richard Nixon could make a sloth jumpy, and Americans elected him by a landslide in 1972. Jimmy Carter made even teetotalers yearn for a drink. Americans wouldn't trust Bill Clinton with their daughters, but the nuclear codes were a different story.

Discomfort is not disqualifying. Mormonism is only one of Romney's attributes, and the election is not a referendum on the GOP nominee: It's a choice between Romney and Barack Obama, who has traits of his own that rub some people the wrong way and drive others up the wall.

There are two big reasons Romney's faith is having so little impact on the race. One is that the people most inclined to hold it against him have bigger things to worry about. White evangelicals may see the church as un-Christian, but they are so strongly opposed to Democrats in general and Obama in particular that theology gets dismissed.

In 2008, white evangelical voters went for John McCain over Obama by a 73-26 ratio, according to the Pew Research Center. This year, they prefer Romney 74-19. They are too Republican to let a little heresy drive them away.

Aside from evangelicals, the group most uncomfortable with Romney's Mormonism consists of those who don't practice any religion. The good news for Romney is that being a Republican, he wouldn't have gotten most of their votes if he were the last politician on Earth.

Only 23 percent of Americans with no religious affiliation voted for McCain in 2008, and Romney is matching that. In a September Pew survey, 27 percent of the "nones" supported him, compared to 65 percent for the president.

But it would be a mistake to discount the other major factor: the ever-growing religious tolerance of the American people. In 1960, John Kennedy's Catholicism roused vocal opposition among large numbers of respectable people.

Protestant ministers and lay people representing 37 denominations formed a group called Citizens for Religious Freedom to assert, "It is inconceivable that a Roman Catholic president would not be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies with respect to foreign relations."

Today that sort of effort, directed toward Catholics or Mormons, would be seen as scandalously illegitimate. Faith is regarded as a private prerogative. The 2008 attempt to damage Obama with his pastor, Jeremiah Wright Jr., failed for that reason. Even the claim that he was a Muslim didn't matter.

Americans have no trouble remembering that they are electing a president. Deciding who gets into heaven? They'll leave that to someone else.

Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/chapman.

schapman@tribune.com

Twitter @SteveChapman13