With the White House race nearing an end, it's time for America's political pundits to face that fact that millions of voters will in fact be worried about Mitt Romney's Mormon faith on Election Day. Many will be offended by what they believe are the intolerant, narrow teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on marriage. Others will be worried about Mormonism's history of opposing abortion rights.
"There really is a large group of people in America who won't vote for Mitt Romney for president because he is a Mormon," noted Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, in a recent Institute on Religion and Democracy lecture.
"It's a very large group and there is a name for them -- liberals."
This isn't the God-and-politics story most media insiders wanted to talk about during the 2012 campaign, said Barnes, who also works as a commentator for Fox News. The religion hook this time around was supposed to be clashes between Romney and Trinitarian Christians who consider Mormonism, at best, a sect or, at the worst, a "theological cult" with its own prophet, scriptures and unorthodox doctrines on the nature of God and other eternal matters.
But a strange thing happened somewhere during the campaign. According to a number of political polls, the overwhelming majority of Christian conservatives quietly decided they could vote for the Republican nominee without endorsing his views on heaven, hell and the mysteries of the Godhead.
In one Gallup survey this past summer, potential voters were asked: "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be a Mormon, would you vote for that person?" While 10 percent of Republicans answered "no," this negative stance toward Mormon candidates rose to 18 percent among self-declared "independents" and 24 percent among Democrats.
Another piece of pre-election research -- the American National Election Studies (.pdf), by a scholar at the University of Sydney -- found that anxieties among evangelical Protestants have actually declined somewhat in recent years, with 36 percent expressing an "aversion" to Mormon candidates in 2007 and 33 percent feeling the same way in 2012.
Meanwhile, anti-Mormon attitudes among non-religious voters rose from 21 percent in 2007 to 41 percent in 2012. Among voters who called themselves "liberals," this aversion to Mormons rose from 28 percent to 43 percent during that same period. Political and religious liberals, according to this study, are now 10 percent more likely than evangelical Protestants to harshly prejudge Mormon candidates.
The key for many Protestants is that, after decades of trying to Christianize American history, it has become very hard for them not to think of the president as a kind of "religious mascot" instead of as a politician, said the Rev. Russell D. Moore, speaking at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. A recording of this forum, entitled "The Mormon Moment: Religious Conviction and the 2012 Election," was later posted on the Internet.
"I heard someone in recent days say, 'I would never vote for anyone who is not an authentically professing evangelical Christian,' " said Moore, who leads the seminary's school of theology. "If that's the case, then as far as I can see, you have about three candidates in the last 100 years or so ... that you could possibly vote for: William Jennings Bryan, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush."
Instead of focusing on a shopping list of doctrines, religious voters will need to focus on a more practical question when they enter voting booths, said Moore. They should ask: "Between these two people -- President Obama and Gov. Romney -- who is going to do the best for the common good and in protecting the United States of America and all the other questions that we've got to keep in mind?"
Meanwhile, admitted Barnes, there are "small pockets" of evangelicals in the Bible Belt who remain convinced that members of their flocks must not compromise by voting for a Mormon. However, most religious conservatives have concluded that they fear Romney's faith less than they fear a second term for Barack Obama.
The experts also know that, "just as a matter of political geography, the few holdouts, if you want to call them that, tend to be in states where Mitt Romney probably doesn't need their votes," said Barnes. "He will carry states like Tennessee and South Carolina and Georgia … very easily."