It will be small consolation for the anti-Mormon evangelical elite that Newt Gingrich captured the evangelical vote in Florida yesterday: The margin over the Mormon candidate was a mere two points...or maybe not. Anyway, if you want to see what gives them the willies, take a look at the end of Reuters' recent story on the current Mormon moment:
"There have been discussions at LDS church headquarters about both the positive and negative aspects of Romney's presidential bid," a person briefed on the talks said. "One concern is that Romney's campaign could further energize evangelical antipathy toward the church. Another concern is that he could take positions that would complicate the church's missionary efforts in the U.S. or other countries such as in Central and South America."
But on the positive side, the person said, "having a Mormon president could raise the church's profile and legitimize it in other countries."
Given the utter ineffectuality of that pro-Santorum conclave in Texas before the South Carolina primary, it's got to be clear to the aspirational leaders of the religious right that, for the greater good of White House access in a hoped-for Republican administration, the time for reaching out to the Romney campaign has come. Not that we can expect to hear much about it.
What we can expect is renewed scrutiny of the Mormon faith of the man who may just have locked himself in as presumptive GOP nominee. In a new New York Magazine profile, Frank Rich points to it as the "key to the Romney mystery"--which mystery is, of course, Who is this guy? For an insider's glimpse of Romney the church official, there's this reminiscence by Utah State professor Philip Barlow, who served as one of his two counselors when Romney was bishop of the LDS ward in Cambridge, Mass.
For his part, Rich doesn't turn the key very far. He dismisses "Faith in America," the Kennedy-ish speech Romney delivered at the George H.W. Bush Library four years ago, as "memorable only for the number of times it named Romney’s own faith: once." That's not true, however. The speech is memorable, or should be, for a sketch of American religious history that only a member of his sometime oppressed religious minority could give:
"Today's generations of Americans have always known religious liberty. Perhaps we forget the long and arduous path our nation's forbearers took to achieve it. They came here from England to seek freedom of religion. But upon finding it for themselves, they at first denied it to others. Because of their diverse beliefs, Ann Hutchinson was exiled from Massachusetts Bay, a banished Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, and two centuries later, Brigham Young set out for the West. Americans were unable to accommodate their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others to different faiths. In this, they were very much like those of the European nations they had left.
"It was in Philadelphia that our founding fathers defined a revolutionary vision of liberty, grounded on self evident truths about the equality of all, and the inalienable rights with which each is endowed by his Creator.
"We cherish these sacred rights, and secure them in our Constitutional order. Foremost do we protect religious liberty, not as a matter of policy but as a matter of right. There will be no established church, and we are guaranteed the free exercise of our religion.
Of course, Brigham Young set out for the West well after the Constitution order had defined its religious vision. And from time to time, Americans continue to have difficulty accommodating their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others of different faiths. As premier Islamophobe Pamela Geller recently noted, about the only place where Romney has not flipflopped is minority religious rights (OK, she said "jihad and Islam"). Indeed, if he does secure the nomination, it's going to be a lot harder for Republicans to play the anti-Muslim card than it was in 2010.