Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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Latter Day Taint?

Evidence suggests that Mitt Romney's religion is less important to voters than it is to reporters.

As Mitt Romney continues his sputtering but probably inevitable progress towards the Republican nomination, his Mormonism continues to provide a source of endless fascination for commentators, if not for the majority of actual voters. It is widely seen as the most interesting thing about him -- more interesting even than his vast wealth, modest tax bill or centrist record as governor of Massachusetts.

The latter, indeed, may count against him in the remaining primaries more than his religious affiliation which, considering the torrent of media speculation, has been mentioned very little during the campaign by the major candidates. Evangelical votes may have cost him South Carolina. Mormon votes undoubtedly boosted him in Nevada. But Romney's opponents on the religious right are (publicly at least) far more troubled by his perceived liberalism than by his membership of a minority faith.

Indeed, while the Evangelical wing of the Republican party always makes for great copy, its home-grown candidates have flopped badly in the primaries. Michele Bachmann and, perhaps more surprisingly, Rick Perry proved to have limited voter-appeal. In their search for a Stop Romney candidate, Christian conservatives have turned to two Catholics, one of whom (Newt Gingrich) has less than compelling religious credentials. The other, Rick Santorum, has now widely been written off, although he is said to be doing well in Minnesota. Most Evangelicals prefer him to Romney, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't prefer Romney to Obama.

A generation or two ago, the thought of Evangelical Protestants lining up behind a Catholic candidate would have seemed as unimaginable as their support for a Mormon might today. There is some evidence of resistance among some such voters to the idea of a Mormon president. A survey last year showed that 47 per cent of white evangelical Protestants would be somewhat or very comfortable with a Mormon in the White House -- more than the 42 per cent of the general population who expressed a similar sentiment, but not dramatically more. And Mormons were viewed favourably by two thirds of the public, including by two thirds of Protestant evangelicals.

Mormons themselves, meanwhile, have mixed feelings about the relentless focus on their religion.

Romney's major problem with such voters is his image as a Massachusetts liberal. In the run up to the South Carolina primary, a leading Southern Baptist, Richard Land, even criticised him for being "not Mormon enough", contrasting his previously liberal stances on issues such as abortion or gay marriage with the conservative line generally taken by the Latter Day Saints. He seems to have taken the hint, launching a charm offensive aimed especially at Catholics. Last night, for example, he lambasted new federal regulations requiring that employee healthcare plans offered by hospitals, universities and other institutions include provision for contraceptives and morning-after pills.

Responding to Catholic fears that the rules would apply to them, Romney described the proposals as "a violation of conscience". "We must have a president who is willing to protect America's first right: our right to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience," he said. Similarly, earlier this week he urged supporters to sign a petition condemning "the Obama administration's attacks on religious liberty."

As ever with Romney, there's a subtlety in his choice of words: the reference to "the dictates of our own conscience" might have been aimed at those suspicious of his own belief-system. And his appeal to the First Amendment points to his continuing desire to preserve the separation of his own religious and political spheres. The overriding sense, though, is of someone determined to say whatever it takes to win the nomination. The question remains whether he can do so while saying little enough to stand a chance in November's general election.