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To people who have been taught as children that Mormonism is a cult and who regard some of the more unusual Mormon beliefs as heresy, one speech from Mitt Romney is not going to allay all of their fears.
For many Catholics and Jews, the idea that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is somehow a threat to evangelical Christianity probably seems absurd. But that is what many believe, and that view makes Romney’s religion a grave concern to evangelicals, no matter how much they agree with the former governor’s views or admire his values.
Anyone who has followed the internal fights of Judaism, with Orthodox Jewish authorities refusing to accept the practices of the Reform, the Reconstructionist or even the Conservative movements, should begin to understand the fundamental problem that many evangelicals have with the Mormon Church.
Many in the media portray evangelical attitudes toward Mormonism as a form of bigotry and religious intolerance akin to the anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic sentiment that was once so prevalent in this country and is much rarer these days. But it is a very different kind of concern, a concern about the meaning of Christianity.
Few in this country would disagree with Mitt Romney’s assertion at the Bush Library that, “A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should be rejected because of his faith.” And just as few would doubt his promise that, if he is elected president, “no authorities of my church ... will ever exert influence on presidential decisions.”
But Romney’s “Mormon problem” bears little resemblance to John F. Kennedy’s “Catholic problem” in 1960. Few evangelicals worry that the former Massachusetts governor will call Salt Lake City for instructions on how to proceed as president.
And Romney’s problem isn’t merely that evangelicals won’t vote for nonevangelicals. They will and they have voted for Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Some have even voted for Mormons for lower office.
Given that evangelicals see Mormonism as deceptive and an attempt to pass itself off as a form of Christianity, one speech about tolerance and the importance of faith is not likely to convince evangelicals to support Romney. I’m willing to bet that American Jews would overwhelmingly feel the same about voting for someone who is a “messianic Jew.”
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.