Recent expressions of political and religious prejudice against Mormons and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have offered Mitt Romney a chance to play the bullied underdog — and to explain, as he did with clarity and dignity during the recent Las Vegas GOP debate, the meaning of the constitutional prohibition against any religious test for public office.
That won't discourage Baptist conservatives or atheist entertainers like Bill Maher from making fun of Mormons and their faith, whose history and tenets certainly sound strange to outsiders.
But is there any real reason to be troubled by Romney's religion? What does the career of the former Massachusetts governor tell us about the ideology of the LDS church — and what his personal beliefs may portend if he becomes the first Mormon in the Oval Office?
The complaint from the religious right — which has promiscuously allied itself with Mormon leaders to oppose reproductive and gay rights (and civil rights in an earlier era) — is that the LDS church does not conform to the tenets of Christianity as they see it. Pastor Robert Jeffress, the man whose anti-Mormon crusading has now taken him onto late-night television and the opinion pages of The Washington Post, says he prefers a "committed Christian" but doesn't say why or what that precisely means.
Mormons may not share all of the tenets of Baptist or Methodist Christianity, but neither do Catholics or Episcopalians, yet fundamentalist evangelicals like Jeffress don't seem to worry much about their role in public life. On issues that implicate morality, sexuality, and family, the Mormons are equally "conservative" and consider themselves to be Christians, too. They officially abandoned polygamy many years ago — and they seem to succeed more consistently in adhering to what they preach than many of their more orthodox brethren, if surveys of divorce, addiction, and teen pregnancy are accurate.
Those conservative principles, along with a history of extremist positions adopted by the Mormon hierarchy, have encouraged the perception of the LDS church as an ideological bulwark of the far right. Mormon leaders long encouraged associations with fringe elements in American politics, such as the John Birch Society, which still wields influence in the Tea Party movement today. And the ultra-craziness of Glenn Beck, himself a Mormon and a promoter of wacky LDS political theorists, has not improved the church's political profile.
In practice, however, the Mormons welcome or at least permit a much broader spectrum of political and ideological affiliations within their ranks, even among the elected officials who share their faith. The highest-ranking Mormon in public office today, for instance, is Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a liberal Democrat demonized by the Tea Party and the Republicans, who spent millions trying to defeat him last year.
The best example of Mormonism's political flexibility, of course, is Romney's own career (and that of his father, the late Michigan governor who was hardly a hardliner), which veered from the most liberal Republicanism to the harsh conservatism he currently espouses.
As an LDS bishop in Boston two decades ago, he staunchly opposed abortion; then a few years later, Romney became pro-choice when he ran for the Senate against Democrat Ted Kennedy; and then shifted again when he began to aspire to his party's presidential nomination. Along the way, he designed and legislated a health-care program that ensures coverage to almost every citizen of Massachusetts and now repudiates that program (more or less) as an invention of Bay State Democrats.
The Romney family traces its lineage to the roots of the LDS movement, and today Mitt Romney stands at the pinnacle of wealth and influence in his church. His shape-shifting politics prove that however conservative most Mormons may be, they resemble most other American religious groups in tolerating a wide assortment of political views within their ranks — especially among politicians who succeed in achieving power. There are many reasons for concern about Romney's character — including his hollow dissembling — but religion is not among them. Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com.