"The Marxism that exists in the White House right now is waaay more disturbing to me" noted Phil, a recent caller to one of my daily talk shows. "If we could replace that with Mormonism, I think that’d be a huge improvement..."
I completely agree with Phil. But if a recent Gallup poll is any indication, lots of Americans think differently than us – and this should be a wake-up call for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and the entire Republican Party.
I’m not assuming that Mr. Romney will necessarily end up being the Republican presidential nominee. He's the current frontrunner in fundraising, ground game support, and popularity among likely voters, but as other candidates drop out – Newt Gingrich, for example – will Romney pick up those supporters? Time will tell.
For now, Republican strategists have to think seriously about how to hold together the divided coalitions on the right, and how to get over the "religious hurdles" that nobody wants to talk about. And those of us rank-and-file voters are going to have to wrestle with my question – "how bad would it be - really?"
Before I go further, let me be clear on where I stand. I was honored to vote for Mr. Romney during the 2008 Republican primary races, even though at the time I was a resident and registered voter in "McCain Country" (Arizona).
I also grew up in a theologically conservative, Protestant Evangelical, church-going family, and was taught that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a "cult." As an adult, I earned a graduate degree in Philosophy at a fairly reputable Evangelical divinity school, where, among other things, I learned about the theological differences between Evangelical Protestants and Mormons.
I disclose these things simply to make this point: I understand the theological tensions between Mormonism and other faith traditions, and my choice to be friends with and supportive of Mormons is by no means an uninformed choice.
I also know that, generally speaking, Mormons love America; they regard the U.S. Constitution as something that is to be respected; and Mormons generally have a profound understanding of the importance of individual liberty. These are all essential and necessary ingredients for American statesmanship, and if it takes a Mormon to return these ideals back to the White House, well, then, so be it.
But back to the polling data. According to the Gallup organization, roughly 22% of Americans simply will not vote for a Mormon to be President. Period. It doesn't matter who the incumbent is, or the party affiliation of the respective candidates. If a presidential candidate is identified with the L.D.S. Church, these voters simply will not cast their ballot for that candidate. Among Republicans and Independents that number drops down to 20%, and among Democrats, specifically, the number skyrockets up to 27%.
So, can Mr. Romney win against these odds? We'll see how things shape-up once the Republican Primary process unfolds. But one thing is for sure: Team Romney most avoid the mistakes of the previous campaign.
Early in his last presidential bid, Mr. Romney claimed that he didn't want to talk about his church, but instead, wanted to talk about being President. But the "Mormon thing" proved to be unavoidable then, and will be that way again this time.
Thus, Mr. Romney should stop trying to prove to "them" - theologically conservative Evangelicals, and Catholics - that he is one of "them." The more he insists that we are all "on the same page," religiously speaking, the more that theologically conservative Catholics and Protestants will say "oh, no we’re not..."
Instead, Mr. Romney should explain why his Mormonism matters to the cause of American civic leadership; that his faith enables him to understand the dignity of the human person, the sanctity of life, the profundity of marriage, the necessity of human liberty, and so forth. He needs to honestly admit that, while the theological divide is real, our American values are universal.
On this point, Romney could borrow from the immediate past Commander-in-Chief. In a little-known speech from March of 2001, President George W. Bush spoke at the opening of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington. Bush, of course, is a Methodist (with strong ties to non-denominational Evangelicalism), yet he managed to do a remarkable job of stating to the Catholic hierarchy, "I may not be a parishioner…but I'm a sojourner with you..." and then brilliantly went on to say that we are "one" with our values.
Romney must avoid appearing as though he's denying the existence of theological tensions. At the same time, he needs to stay out of theological debates, and steer the "religious questions" in to a discussion about values.
It is a difficult task at hand for Mr. Romney, yet his Mormonism nurtures our American values. He needs to say as much.