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.
These amateur theologians occasionally get mixed up, with some Republicans asserting that Mormons do not believe in the divinity of Christ. The first of Mormon founder Joseph Smith's 13 Articles of Faith reads: "We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost." It is true that the Mormon understanding of the Trinity is not what is taught by Catholic and most Protestant faiths. But nobody today seeks to disqualify Jews and non-Trinitarian Protestants from high office.
Romney wisely has no intention of lecturing America on Mormon theology. Rather, he cites the 1838 speech in Springfield, Ill., by the young Abraham Lincoln, in which he said, "let reverence for the laws . . . become the political religion of the nation." In other words, religion should not make that much difference in America.
The benefits of being a Mormon that Romney plans to access include a large base of wealthy donors ready to fill his campaign treasury. Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, chief deputy majority whip of the Senate and a Mormon, plans to take Romney on a get-acquainted visit with Republican senators. That is far less support than Kennedy's 1960 candidacy received from conservative Catholics who delayed their departure from the Democratic Party.
But the intense reaction Romney will meet almost surely will require a stronger response than he now envisions. He has supporters who believe that he must go before the public and declare that the imposition of a religious test on U.S. politics is unfair, unreasonable and un-American.