Michael Gerson
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WASHINGTON -- Concerning Mormons and Republicans, history offers a large helping of irony. In 1843, an Army officer named John C. Fremont led a geographical expedition of 39 men more than 1,700 miles to the shores of the Great Salt Lake. His report on the journey inspired hounded Mormons to mount their wagons and resettle in the Great Basin.

Thirteen years later in Philadelphia, Fremont became the first presidential nominee of the Republican Party, which adopted a platform opposing the "twin relics of barbarism -- Polygamy, and Slavery." The slogan, and the anti-Mormon sentiment behind it, caught on. A Republican rally in Indianapolis, reportedly attended by 60,000 people, included an ox-drawn parade wagon depicting Brigham Young along with six wives dressed in hoop skirts, each with a little Brigham in her arms.

In Tampa later this month, Republicans will cheer themselves hoarse for a Mormon nominee. And a nation that carefully marks and celebrates every ethnic and religious first won't take much notice. The Mormon church -- for which visibility has often brought persecution -- is unlikely to crow about the achievement. And Mitt Romney is probably getting advice to downplay his religion. That was the case in 2007, when Romney explained that he liked the idea of giving a speech on his faith, but "the political advisers tell me, 'No, no, no, it's not a good idea. It draws too much attention to that issue alone.'"

This cautiousness is understandable. In the typology of sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, Mormons remain a rejected "out-group," unlike accepted "in-groups" such as Catholics and Jews. Large majorities of Americans perceive Mormonism as "very different" from their own religious beliefs.

But in this case, the counsel of religious reticence is wrong. Romney should not be afraid to highlight his faith.

The political risks are overblown. A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that more than 80 percent of voters who know Romney is a Mormon are either comfortable with his faith or it doesn't matter to them. And even among the margin of the uncomfortable -- including some secularists and evangelicals -- this concern doesn't dictate voting behavior. In American politics, partisanship is a far stronger political force than theological affinity. "Overwhelming majorities of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who know Romney is Mormon support him, whether they are comfortable with his religion or not," the Pew study concludes. "Conversely, about nine in ten Democrats and Democratic-leaners intend to vote for Barack Obama, regardless of their view of Romney's faith."

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Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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