The Okie Gardener asserts that Mitt Romney's Mormonism makes his attempt to capture the 08 Republican nomination nearly impossible.


1. Evangelicals and Mormons are unfriendly competitors for souls in the suburban neighborhoods of the South. More precisely, "conservative and evangelical churches view Mormonism as a non-Christian religion, even terming it a 'cult.'"

2. Any potential explanation of his faith (the "speech") by the candidate will only exacerbate the problem, awakening less vigilant evangelicals to a whole litany of startling idiosyncrasies integral to Mormon worship.

My colleague, the Okie Gardener, is a scholar of American religion, published and respected in his field. On almost all matters in this area of scholarship, I happily defer to his erudition.

However, in the case of Mitt Romney, and how his religion will play in this particular race for the Republican nomination (and his potential subsequent run for the presidency in the general election), I see things a shade differently. Although I expect a candidate other than Romney to win the nomination, I think hostility to his religion will play only a minor role in this contest.

The Speech may work to Romney's advantage.

1. I agree with the assertion that a speech explaining Mormon worship would not be productive, but Romney is assuring us that this speech will not be of that variety. Evidently, tomorrow's address will spotlight the "common cause" among Americans of faith and our "history" of religious tolerance. Evangelicals today are much more accommodating to Catholics and Jews in terms of political partnership. I think Romney can make a strong case for admitting Mormons as full members into that conservative social-political coalition. In a nutshell: clean-cut, straight-arrow Mormons make good neighbors and good partners in conservatism.

2. The speech will be a major political story, with the potential to be a minor cultural event. This address will place Romney's name and campaign front and center for all interested voters. Romney will enjoy a rare opportunity to hold the attention of the very people in America who are most likely to decide the nomination. There is great risk in this gambit; it is a "make or break" outing--but most politicians would love a chance to take this gamble, viewing the potentially huge payoff as well worth braving the less appetizing downsides.

3. How serious is his Mormon Problem? I am disinclined to think an evangelical backlash could ever reach a point to which it will determine the outcome of any primary election in the South. No matter, even if that happened, the Deep South is not the kingmaker in this race. Romney can win this election without winning the South. And, after the primaries, where are evangelicals likely to go? Will they vote for their co-religionists Hillary Clinton and/or Barack Obama in November? The hatred in the hearts of most conservative evangelicals for the Clintons far outpaces their skepticism and antipathy for Mormonism.

I see the whole issue as a minor nuisance, a non-issue for most (non-evangelical) Republicans, who have been conditioned to treat religion in the warmest and fuzziest of terms. We (the people) seem to desire some brand of nebulous morality and spirituality--but rarely do we require much more than that.

Having said all that, where does Mitt fall short?

Mitt Romney's campaign is the smartest and best funded. He has a great strategy, which may have included arriving at this notable juncture in American political history at a most propitious moment. Almost certainly, he will win in Iowa and New Hampshire. Propelled by his enviable war chest and his superior organization, these early marquee victories could allow him to gain enough momentum to stampede the competition.

But maybe not. Romney has other more intractable obstacles. He is too Massachusetts. He has too many center-left skeletons in his closet. While I can certainly see a path to the nomination (and I think his chances may actually improve following the speech), my gut feeling remains that he will not emerge victorious in the 2008 Republican canvass. I think it likely that he will fall eventually to a more orthodox candidate.

No matter, Governor Romney deserves enormous credit for running an immensely well-executed and heady campaign, and I expect The Speech will give him a boost.