Mitt Romney's Mormonism is shaping up to be more of an oddity than an obstacle in the minds of 2012 American voters, even among evangelicals.
His situation is nothing like John F. Kennedy's Catholic crisis in the 1960 presidential election. People were concerned that, given the hierarchical nature of the Roman Catholic Church and that the head of that church is also a head of state, a Catholic president might be beholden to a foreign power. But then-Sen. Kennedy reassured the electorate, saying, "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters, and the Church does not speak for me." Assured that Kennedy's religion had no effect on his life decisions, voters considered the matter closed.
A generation later, Jerry Falwell organized the Moral Majority to protect American culture and Christian families against the corrupting assaults of the New Left counter-culture. But the organization was intentionally ecumenical, even secular. It was the "Moral" Majority, not the Christian Majority. In his attempt to rally his fellow citizens in restoring the moral and political heritage of the country, Falwell locked arms with a broad coalition of concerned co-belligerents, including Catholics, Jews, and Mormons. His group was 30 percent Catholic, including leaders such as Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich. People were fine with that.
By 2012, Rick Santorum - who, unlike John Kennedy in 1960 and John Kerry in 2004, is a very conservative Catholic - created no stir at all among evangelical voters. Many viewed him as "one of us."
But Mormons are different. They are not part of the Christian tradition broadly conceived, though, of course, they claim to be. They cannot affirm even the broad, earliest ecumenical creeds, such as the Apostles' and Nicene creeds. And yet, as Falwell saw, there is political common cause between Christians and Mormons. Most Mormons seem patriotic, productive, and protective of the family.
Another reason that Gov. Romney's Mormonism seems to be less of an issue now than it was in 2008 is that such issues loom larger in primaries than they do in a general election, when the finer details of a candidate become obscured by the deeper differences he has with his opponent. If the mischief of his competitor for office seems grave enough, partisans will form otherwise unlikely alliances to stop him. Sometimes that mischief is not a man but a grave national threat that perhaps the other candidate is clearly not up to addressing, such as a foreign enemy or an economic or fiscal crisis. It is certainly the economic issues that are driving Republican views of their nominee in this election.
There are still evangelicals who, for theological reasons, would never vote for a Mormon. As an electoral issue, the question is whether there are enough evangelicals of that sort to make a difference in the handful of swing states that will decide the election in November.