Romney’s religion spin is doomed

So far, so good. That’s what the Romney campaign must be thinking about reactions thus far to Mitt’s Mormon religious affiliation. Prominent pro-life activist Jim Bopp joined the team. The Rev. Jerry Falwell said nice things. James Dobson said he’d never vote for John McCain (but hasn’t said the same about Romney). John McCain’s spokesman condemned sniping at Romney’s religious beliefs. MSNBC declared that “polling data suggest that Romney’s wooing of James Dobson and other conservative religious leaders is making inroads.”

It’s evident that the Romney campaign has been successful in convincing some evangelical, Protestant and Catholic Republicans that shared moral values are more important than their theological differences. Romney’s spinners are also convincing some secular Republicans that “all religions have strange beliefs and practices, so Mitt’s Mormonism shouldn’t be held against him.” If that set of reassurances doesn’t allay voter concerns, then Team Romney reminds voters that “it’s a political choice, not a religious one.”

Meanwhile, the starched-white-shirt bond traders, brokers, and financiers that Romney has lured into his camp by the dozens are raising gobs of dough to run enough ads to make those messages stick. These money men don’t know or care much about Mormonism. Most of them worship instead around an altar to Mammon, so they are glad to help fund a campaign to fix what they perceive as an obscure problem of religious intolerance.

This happy picture couldn’t be more misleading. First, current poll numbers are much worse than most news organizations acknowledge. While MSNBC and other media outlets whitewash angst toward Romney’s faith, the hard numbers paint a different picture. Moreover, as we move forward, this will get worse as voters gain more information about the Mormon faith. Currently, as my column last week discussed, few Americans possess much religious knowledge, even of their own church or denomination, so we couldn’t expect them to know much about Mormon beliefs. But if Romney makes a serious run for the GOP nomination, we’ll all hear a lot more about distinctive practices and tenets of Mormonism that will trouble many Americans, stymieing Romney’s candidacy.

The latest Gallup Poll on the topic — and Gallup has the best history on this question — says that 24 percent of all Americans readily say they would not vote for a Mormon for president. A separate Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 29 percent of Americans would be “less likely” to vote for a Mormon candidate.

While interesting, I think that the “vote for” questions seriously underestimate potential antipathy for Mormon candidates. Gallup also polled Americans recently for their views of the Mormon religion generally. Almost one-half (46 percent) of Americans confess to holding an unfavorable opinion of the Mormon religion. Among Republicans alone, just 42 percent hold a favorable opinion toward Romney’s religion while 52 percent are negative.

Yes, the Romney camp can try to sell the notion that Americans will look past Romney’s religion — and some will, for sure — but for most Americans, Romney’s embrace of secretive Mormon Temple practices like baptizing the dead, the Book of Mormon’s contention that Native Americans descended from lost Israelites, and mystical notions that men may become Gods will drive even some of the money changers from Mitt’s Temple. And when others discover that Mormons (and presumably Romney) believe the “New Jerusalem” will be in North America, it will all be over. Notions of shared values with Romney will collapse as the chasm between the Mormon worldview and typical American worldview becomes evident.
Next week’s column will describe how this collapse of Romney’s campaign may eventually play out.

David Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.