A new poll that gauges Americans' views of the Mormon faith served up difficult news for the nation's highest profile member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 24 percent of people it surveyed expressed a negative view of the religion, with white evangelical Protestants most likely to characterize Mormonism as "non-Christian."
That a key part of the GOP base is squeamish about Romney's faith suggests that his toughest days as a candidate may be right now — during the Republican nominating contest.
A Pew analysis, however, says that the former Massachusetts governor's religion won't have major at-the-polls implications if he wins his party's nomination and runs against President Obama next fall.
Those most uncomfortable with Romney's religion are also the most motivated to remove Obama from the White House, Pew found. And just 8 percent of all Republican and Republican-leaning voters said the Romney's religion makes them less likely to vote for him.
But the details of the survey paint a more complicated electoral picture for Romney, and for any Mormon candidate, including former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, also seeking the GOP nomination. Some highlights:
- A third of Republicans polled said that Mormonism is not a Christian religion.
- Two-thirds of Americans say they believe the faith is "very different" from their own beliefs.
- Those who expressed a negative view of Mormonism used words like "cult" and "strange" to describe it.
- And, despite Romney's campaign for the GOP's 2008 presidential nomination, which included a speech about his faith, Pew found that there has been no change in Americans' impressions of Mormonism over the past four years.
For perspective on the poll, and what it might mean for Romney, we turned to religion expert David Campbell, co-author with Robert Putnam of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.
Campbell directs the University of Notre Dame's Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy. He describes himself as a political scientist, who also happens to be Mormon.
On how much Romney's faith will figure in the presidential race
"It is going to matter," Campbell says. "It matters now, and it will continue to matter — not that it's a liability he can't overcome, but it is a liability."
That said, Campbell suggests that it is difficult to untangle concerns evangelical Christians may have with Romney's faith and with other issues, including his support as governor of a Massachusetts health care overhaul Obama used as a model for national legislation.
"Those who have an issue with Mormonism have deep issues," Campbell says. "But most don't, and it's easy to overstate."
On whether Romney may have to again formally address his faith as he did in 2007
"I think it's unlikely that he will give a single speech," Campbell says. "He did that. It didn't seem to turn the tide for him in the 2008 race."
Campbell says that Romney's best strategy, which he has already used, will be an appeal to religious tolerance.
"That's a powerful argument to make," he says, without getting into the specifics of his religious background.
"I do not believe that Mitt Romney should be forced to answer questions about particular Mormon doctrine, or what leaders said in the 19th century," Campbell said, just as John F. Kennedy, the nation's first Catholic president, should not have been questioned about what the Pope said centuries ago.
On why there has been no change in American views on Mormonism, despite the attention of the past four years
"The most important factor that explains why an American is accepting of someone of another faith — and may feel warmly enough toward them to vote for them — is a close personal connection between that person and someone who is of that religion," Campbell says.
The nature of Mormonism makes that connection difficult.
"It's a small group, and a group that is quite insular," he says. "They do not build many bridges with others, and spend a lot of discretionary time doing church things."
That's part of the explanation, he says. Another part is geographic: the religion is also largely concentrated in the Mountain West of the United States.
"The fact of the matter is that since its founding, the LDS church has said 'we're different,'" Campbell says, adding that its rituals, while secret, are no more unusual than a Catholic Mass.
On how Romney's run will affect understanding of Mormonism
"The country will be better off in the medium- and long-term for the national discussion we're about to have," he says. "Not just about Mormonism, but about whether candidates should be questioned about religion."
In the short term, Campbell predicts that the discussion could be painful for Mormons who will see things they hold sacred ridiculed.
The process may "move Mormonism into the mainstream," he said, simply by having more factual information injected into the discussion.