The Okie Gardener points us to this story in the Washington Post : "Religion Looms Large Over 2008 Race" (read here).

The article attempts to make two basic points:

1. Religion plays a much more important role in electing a president than it did four decades ago. All candidates (both GOP and Dems) feel that they need a religious public persona.

In essence, this is correct. However, there is a bit of journalistic leger demain in there. The story pivots on the Election of 1968, in which Mitt Romney's father, George, a practicing Mormon like his son, did not face much animosity or even curiosity about his religious beliefs in his unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination.

What changed? The Post calls on pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, who avers that "between the late 1960s, when Romney's father ran, and now there has been one of the great transformations of our era."

Kohut asserts: "There is more mixing of religion and politics than there was then."

The attention to 1968 seems to imply that there is an unprecedented concern for religion in politics today, which perpetuates the modern myth of an American electorate historically dedicated to preserving a strict separation of religious culture and political culture. As we have discussed time after time on this blog, such a "wall of separation" was never the reality in the American tradition.

Although the Post assumes the importance of JFK and his Catholicism in 1960 as precedent, they don't seem to make the logical connection to an electorate concerned with religion in 1960 (not to mention 1928). Nor does the Post ask the perfectly reasonable question: if religion were not a factor in selecting national leaders, why has a Mormon candidate not won the presidency over the past 150 years? A Jewish candidate? The truth is that 1968 is the aberration (for a lot of reasons that I will not go into here). No matter, by neglecting to mention the context of 1968, the Post is sloppy (at best).

UPDATE: Something for another time: I agree with the Post that we are in the midst of a religious revival in that faith is increasingly essential for candidates; on the other hand, our corporate religious personality has become so diverse that minority religionists today have more viability than ever before. More at some later date on this paradox.

The other theme of the Post article:

2. The Religious Right and their prejudice against Mormonism still presents Mitt Romney with a formidable obstacle to overcome in winning the Republican nomination.

This one strikes me as based on a false assumption at worst, and a bit overblown at best.

The power of the Christian Right in the GOP is limited

It is a mistake to assume that the Christian Right plays the ultimate "kingmaker" role in GOP primaries. Just ask Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer, Sam Brownback, and a myriad other failed aspirants who built campaigns around appealing to the tastes of religious conservatives. Since the advent of the so-called Religious Right, the GOP has nominated Ronald Reagan, George Bush (41), Bob Dole and George Bush (43). None of those candidates were anathema to religious people--but, with the possible exception of the latter George Bush, neither were they simpatico with conservative evangelicals.

An aside: the continued success of Rudy puts the lie to the notion that a candidate offensive to the Southern Evangelical power structure is not viable within the Republican Party.

Evangelicals can be quite ecumenical when the situation dictates

More importantly, the continued speculation centering on Romney's Mormonism ignores the propensity of the evangelicals to compromise and coalesce. Regardless of how powerful the Christian Right may be within the party, there is no doubt that evangelicals have been more than willing to join hands with other like-minded people of differing faiths. Part of the strength of modern religious voters is that they transcend denominations. Conservative Jews, Catholics and Protestants are now quick to make common cause. As for the General Election: faced with a big-name opponent whom they don't like very much (Hillary Clinton), religious conservatives will be happy to support Mitt Romney, a person of faith who enunciates shared conservative values.

My hunch is that Romney does not need to overcome a religious hurdle. Romney needs to prove himself a stimulating candidate with a message and a good chance to win in November. Once he does that (and I must admit that he is even making some headway with me in that regard), he will be plenty palatable to the Richard Lands of the political world.