Mitt Romney’s religion – he’s a Mormon – has been raised once again in the Republican presidential campaign.
The question is, will it disrupt his front-runner status, especially among the social and evangelical conservatives who are an important part of the GOP base, frequently overlapping with the tea party?
In introducing Texas Governor Rick Perry at the “Values Voter Summit” in Washington Friday, prominent evangelical leader Robert Jeffress asked, “Do we want a candidate who is a good moral person, or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ?”
Just to make it clear what he was talking about, the Rev. Jeffress, pastor of a large Southern Baptist church in Dallas, later told reporters: “Mormonism is not Christianity. It’s not politically correct to say, but Mormonism is a cult.”
Jeffress said he was not speaking for Perry, nor did Perry choose who would introduce him to the gathering of social conservatives who play an important role in choosing Republican presidential candidates.
But the Perry campaign had to quickly distance itself from the controversial comments about his GOP rival’s religion.
“The governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult,” campaign spokesman Robert Black wrote in an email. “He is not in the business of judging people. That’s God’s job.”
But judging people is part of the political process for all candidates, and that seems especially true when it comes to conservative Republicans and religion.
According to a Pew Research Center poll this summer, 25 percent of all voters say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate if he or she were a Mormon.
More significantly in terms of winning the Republican Party nod, 34 percent of white evangelical Protestants say they would be less likely to support a Mormon candidate, according to Pew. Such voters made up 44 percent of GOP primary voters in 2008 – a group Romney did not do well with before he dropped out of the race.
A recent Quinnipiac poll found that only 35 percent of American voters are “entirely comfortable” with the idea of having a president who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church).
That falls well below American comfort levels with a Catholic president (60 percent), Jewish president (55 percent), and Evangelical Christian (43 percent), but ahead of an atheist (24 percent) or a Muslim (21 percent).
Similarly, a Gallup poll in June found nearly 20 percent of Republicans and independents saying they would not support a Mormon for president – slightly lower than the 27 percent of Democrats saying the same.
“Americans' reluctance to support a Mormon for president has held close to the 20 percent level since Gallup first measured this in 1967, and long after historical biases against voting for blacks, Catholics, Jews, and women have dwindled,” Gallup’s Lydia Saad wrote in an analysis of the poll.
“Still, it is significant that in 1959, the year before John F. Kennedy won election as the nation's first Catholic president, 25 percent of Americans – including 22 percent of Democrats, 33 percent of Republicans, and 18 percent of independents – said they would not vote for a Catholic,” Saad reported.
Will Romney address the subject of his religion directly? He was scheduled to speak to the Values Voter Summit Saturday.
In his first race for the presidency four years ago, he likened himself to Kennedy in 1960 in his personal separation of church and state.
In what probably was his most important political speech at the time, Romney said, “Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.”
“Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: does he share these American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty?” he said in a 2007 speech at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas. "They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They are the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united.”
Gallup’s Lydia Saad notes that public opposition to Kennedy’s religion fell to 21 percent by May 1960 and to 13 percent by August 1961.
“Kennedy's success in overcoming a similar challenge in 1960 relating to his Catholic faith may give hope to Romney and his supporters about his electability in 2012,” she concludes.