Nobody is suggesting that Mitt Romney as president of the United States would be taking orders from the president of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City. The Republican whispering campaign against Mormons is broader — based on ridicule of the church’s doctrine. I have heard Republicans who have read the Book of Mormon express astonishment that any rational person could believe that.

These amateur theologians occasionally get mixed up, with some Republicans asserting that Mormons do not believe in the divinity of Christ. The first of Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s 13 Articles of Faith reads: ‘’We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.'’ It is true that the Mormon understanding of the Trinity is not what is taught by Catholic and most Protestant faiths. But nobody today seeks to disqualify Jews and non-Trinitarian Protestants from high office. ~Robert Novak

Via Ross Douthat

In short, it doesn’t really matter. Will the LDS belief in baptism for the dead affect how the man handled budget policy, and will his crediting the revelation of the angel Moroni adversely affect his views on Iranian nuclear development? Of course not. In a very practical sense, it doesn’t matter. But it does matter greatly to the voters Mr. Romney needs to get the nomination, and so it definitely does matter politically.

Mr. Douthat rightly takes exception to Novak’s odd language about “unconstitutional” religious tests being imposed on Mitt Romney, when there is no question of anyone passing a law or taking the man to court to have him barred on account of Mormonism. No one is talking of actually “disqualifying” the man from running, but of voters who simply will not consider him qualified when he does run. What is being expressed is the preference not to vote for someone with whom, in this case, evangelical Christians in particular do not and feel they cannot identify.

If all were were honest, most Catholics (and we few, we happy few Orthodox) would also have to say that we do not identify with members of the LDS church, nor can we say that we really believe the same things. Despite attempts to soften the language, most Christians who have looked into what Mormons are supposed to believe, according to the sources of their own church doctrine, cannot credit them with the name of Christian except in the way that Arians and Sabellians can be called Christians. To say that their doctrine of the Trinity is not the same as what we hold is to be extremely generous; their doctrine of God is materialist, for starters, and their conception of deification puzzles me, because it pretty clearly has nothing to do with the classic Christian doctrine of deification. What can I say? An Orthodox candidate for President would probably run up against prejudices of a different kind for the same reason, and that is to be expected; it is regrettable, perhaps, but unavoidable in a country where we do still allow people the luxury of casting their own votes.

But as I have noted a few times before, symbolic meaning and identification with someone whom you believe represents you and yours are the main elements in what drives most voting. That is why Romney’s Mormonism will inevitably be a killer for him in the primaries on the national stage (on a state level, people, especially in Massachusetts, probably couldn’t care less, but the religious politics of America outside the Northeast are obviously very different).

It did not matter that Mr. Bush is seriously an evangelical Christian in the way that I am a monk–he served as a symbol for evangelicals and proved to be someone who could represent them on the national stage, which made him their man for better or worse (and it has been for the worse). Angela Merkel could barely scrape together a coalition with the former ruling party because the lady’s not for turning to Rome; Prussian Protestant ex-communists do not get the Bavarian and Rhenish Catholic voters to come out in droves, and indeed this one didn’t. Her Bavarian Catholic predecessor, in contrast, very nearly won last time (except for all that trouble about the war). In heavily secular Britain, when the time comes for David Cameron to be humiliated in a general election, he will discover that everyone outside of certain respectable parts of the West End will have stayed home in large numbers rather than back the incoherent program of an upper-class toff who represents “Middle England” about as well as John Kerry represents Middle America.

It has taken only a few election cycles (the first I can really remember in detail was ‘92, though I have fuzzy memories as far back as ‘84) to beat it into my head that election results have next to nothing to do with policy proposals (they can enhance or diminish how much people are willing to support someone they already identify with, but without the first connection of the voter’s recognition of something of himself in the candidate all the wonkery in the world will not make any difference). This is why “negative campaigning” actually does succeed more often than not, because it tells us things about a candidate (whether true or not) that disrupt the connection some voters have made with the candidate by throwing into doubt whether he is “one of them.” Not that the politicos are ever really “one of them,” but imagining that this is so is one of the pleasant fictions of the democratic process and helps explain why voters respond to different candidates in the ways they do.

Romney might have a chance, as I have written before, if he deemphasised everything distinctively Mormon about himself, which would be a bit disingenuous (but hardly unheard of in politics!), and talked up vague categories of “faith” and “values.” In reality, this is not that much different from what Mr. Bush has done, except when he made the memorable remark that Jesus was his “favourite philosopher.” If he goes on the offensive and plays the wounded victim (”Mormons are people, too!”) he will not only permanently alienate more than just the hard-core evangelicals but will manage to lose the respect of a lot of Republicans who would not like to see their would-be future president’s early public performances as exercises in whining about mean, old, intolerant Christians. As much as Andrew Sullivan would love it (”You show those Christianists what’s what, Mitt!”), the Red Staters will just laugh at him, and the latter are the ones he needs to impress if he wants to be President. Lecturing them about being un-American for their alleged religious bigotry will probably not win any votes, and it cannot come off “looking presidential,” that all-important element of vanity that makes up so much of modern American politics.

But for those exercised about “religious tests,” let’s just play devil’s advocate with a more extreme example: if a Scientologist were running for President, wouldn’t you actively discriminate against such a candidate and deny him your vote? If you said yes (as I suspect most sensible people would), you can understand why the evangelicals will not be putting Romney bumper stickers on their cars in the next two years.