WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney, in his last nine months as governor of Massachusetts, was in Washington Tuesday to address the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in an early stage of his 2008 presidential campaign. To a growing number of Republican activists, he looks like the party's best bet. But any conversation among Republicans about Romney invariably touches on concerns of whether his Mormon faith disqualifies him for the presidency.
The U.S. Constitution prohibits a religious test for public office, but that is precisely what is being posed now. Prominent, respectable Evangelical Christians have told me, not for quotation, that millions of their co-religionists cannot and will not vote for Romney for president solely because he is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If Romney is nominated and their abstention results in the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton, that's just too bad. The Evangelicals are adamant, saying there is no way Romney can win them over.
Romney is well aware that an unconstitutional religious test is being applied to him, but he may be seriously minimizing the problem's scope as limited to relatively few fanatics. He feels the vast majority of conservative voters worried about his faith will flinch at the prospect of another Clinton in the White House. But such a rational approach is not likely to head off a highly emotional collision of religious faith and religious bias with American politics.
There was no such collision 38 years ago when Romney's father, George, then in his third term as governor of Michigan, unsuccessfully sought the presidential election. Apart from reporters sniping at what were then Mormon exclusionary policies toward blacks, religion was the least of the senior Romney's political problems. In the intervening four decades, American religiosity has grown and Evangelical influence in the Republican Party emerged.
The last comparable attempted invocation of a religious test was directed against John F. Kennedy in 1960. But origins of this bias then could be isolated and, therefore, could be dealt with directly. Protestant ministers whipped up opposition to Kennedy by warning that a Roman Catholic president would be taking orders from the pope. Kennedy defused that canard by declaring his independence from the Vatican.
Nobody is suggesting that Mitt Romney as president of the United States would be taking orders from the president of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City. The Republican whispering campaign against Mormons is broader-based on ridicule of the church's doctrine. I have heard Republicans who have read the Book of Mormon express astonishment that any rational person could believe that fanciful stuff.