A recent Los Angeles TimesBloomberg poll concludes that thirty-seven percent of Americans will not vote for a presidential candiate who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Latter-day Saint or Mormon). Mitt Romney a leading republican presidential candidate is, of course, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ. If the poll is accurate, then Mitt’s campaign faces a hurdle not faced by a presidential candiate for over 40 years: religious bias.

Only Muslims Fared Worse

The Los Angeles Times story today points out that only a Muslim presidential candidate would fare worse than would a Latter-day Saint:

BOSTON — Most traditional barriers to religion in presidential elections have toppled, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found. In particular, the survey released today shows that anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism are fading among voters.

But uneasiness about some religions persists. Thirty-seven percent of those questioned said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, and 54% said no to the prospect of a Muslim in the White House. In addition, 21% said they could not vote for an evangelical Christian.

Fifteen percent said they would not vote for a Jewish presidential candidate, and 10% were unwilling to cast ballots favoring a Catholic chief executive.

Challenge For Romney

No Muslims appear likely to seek the presidency in 2008. But the numbers could be a threat to Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as the Mormon Church is formally known) who is exploring a run for the GOP presidential nomination.

“It is something he will have to address,” said Merle Black, a professor of politics at Emory University. “It will be a challenge. It doesn’t necessarily kill him as a candidate, but he may have to talk in more detail than he ever has before about his faith.”

It appears Romney will have to have his Kennedy moment and deliver the Mormon factor speech, much like JFK did over 40 years ago assauge the fears of some voters. I have previously blogged about Romney addressing the Mormon issue here and here. In light of this most recent poll, it appears that speech will likely be a certainty at some point.

Yet, Mitt Romney successfully ran for and won election as Massachusetts Governor. He also ran, though unsuccessfully against Senator Edward Kennedy for United States Senator–though it is unlikely religion was a major factor in that race. Clearly religion was not a factor in the gubernatorial election–but that was a state contest in a more liberal state, rather than a national election where the voter pool is much wider, a potentially more shallow as well:

His religion apparently was no detriment in Massachusetts in 2002, when he easily won election as governor. Massachusetts is one of the most heavily Catholic states in the country, and also one of the most Democratic.

The governor is from a family that is almost as political as it is Mormon. His late father, George Romney, was a three-term governor of Michigan who also made a brief, unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination. Lenore Romney, the Massachusetts governor’s late mother, lost a Republican bid for the U.S. Senate.

Mitt Romney, who made a fortune as a venture capitalist, suffered defeat in his maiden political outing in 1994 when he ran against Democrat Edward M. Kennedy for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts.

I believe the continued obsession of the national press of Mormonism is fueled to a great degree by the continued evangelical bigotry toward Latter-day Saints and their religious beliefs. Evangelicals continue to publically proclaim that Mormons are members of a cult, and that they are not Christian:

Romney is reticent about his religion, citing privacy and contending that candidates should not be judged on their “brand of faith.” But he regularly describes himself as a Christian, saying, “Jesus Christ is my savior.”

Some branches of Christianity do not embrace the Mormon Church. On its website, the Southern Baptist Convention includes Mormonism in a section called “cults, sects and new religious movements.” Kenyn Cureton, a vice president of the Baptist convention, says his church does not regard Mormons as Christians.

“They are not orthodox in their beliefs,” Cureton said. “They have additional books that they add to the Bible, which evangelical Christians believe is God’s word. They believe that there are many, many gods and that you too can become a god in your own world. It sounds good, but unfortunately it is not based on sound teaching.”

Cureton praised Mormons as “very moral, very family-oriented people.” Southern Baptists, he said, “would appreciate that angle. But as far as our beliefs, we would have disagreements.”

Quite Christian of our evangelical brothers to perpetuate this religious bigotry and bias even in the 21 century. Yet, one political consultant, Mike Murphy who continues to advise Mitt Romney discounts this early poll, and its conclusions:

Republican political consultant Mike Murphy, who advised Romney in his gubernatorial bid, said any discussion about Romney’s religion as a potential obstacle to the presidency was premature, and probably misplaced. Murphy also has counseled the Massachusetts governor as he tests the waters for the 2008 presidential race.

“I think the poll is wrong,” Murphy said. “I think this is a classic example of how with polling data, you can find something that is not predictive at all.” Besides, Murphy said, “When he ran for governor of Massachusetts, everybody said there was no way a Mormon would win in one of the most Catholic states in America. I’ve been to this movie before.”

JFK Faced Simliar Poll Numbers:

“If he runs, I think he won’t be judged only through that prism,” he said. “When you break it down to one aspect for a guy, that is a mistake. Polls, I am sure, said the exact same thing about John F. Kennedy a year before he ran.”

Indeed, in a Roper poll from June 1960, 35% of respondents said either that it might be better not to have a Catholic president or that they would be against it. Then-Sen. John F. Kennedy gave a speech on the subject of his religion that September, and he was elected president two months later.

Still, others disagree pointing out that Catholic and Jewish candidates have not faced the same type of bias, because Mormons have never been considered a mainstream religion–a fair conclusion; however, I think in recent years the Church has become much more mainstream, compared with the early Church which seemed often to be at odds with the government and society.

So, what’s a presidential candidate who happens also to be Mormon to do? One of the critical things I think he has to do is to emphasize his impeccable past experience and credentials:

The governor is from a family that is almost as political as it is Mormon. His late father, George Romney, was a three-term governor of Michigan who also made a brief, unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination. Lenore Romney, the Massachusetts governor’s late mother, lost a Republican bid for the U.S. Senate.

Mitt Romney, who made a fortune as a venture capitalist, suffered defeat in his maiden political outing in 1994 when he ran against Democrat Edward M. Kennedy for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts.

As a young man, Romney was a Mormon missionary in France. He graduated from LDS-sponsored Brigham Young University in Utah. Romney was president of an LDS stake — a group of local congregations, comparable to a Catholic diocese — in Belmont, Mass., where his family settled more than 30 years ago. He has also overseen a local Mormon congregation as a bishop.

Additional noteworthy accomplishments, courtesy of The Commonwealth PAC include:

Accomplishments as Governor

Elected in 2002, Governor Romney has presided over a dramatic reversal of state fortunes and a period of sustained economic expansion. Without raising taxes or increasing debt, Governor Romney has balanced the budget every year of his administration, closing a $3 billion budget deficit his first year in office. By eliminating waste, streamlining the government, and enacting comprehensive economic reforms to help spur growth in Massachusetts, Romney helped the state achieve a surplus that currently totals nearly $1 billion.

At the beginning of Governor Romney’s term, Massachusetts was losing thousands of jobs every month and businesses were closing their doors. Today, the unemployment rate is averaging more than a full percentage point lower, hundreds of companies have expanded or moved to Massachusetts, and the state has added more than 37,000 jobs in just the last two years.

2002 Winter Olympics

Governor Romney first attained national recognition for his role in turning around the 2002 Winter Olympics. With the 2002 Games mired in controversy and facing a financial crisis, Romney was asked to take over as President and CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, leaving behind a successful career as an entrepreneur.

Governor Romney has said he felt compelled to assume the seemingly impossible task of rescuing the Games by both the urgings of his wife, Ann, and by the memory of his father, George Romney, who had been a successful businessman, three-term Governor of Michigan, and a tireless advocate of volunteerism in America.

Mitt Romney at the 2002 Olympic GamesIn his three years at the helm in Salt Lake, Romney erased a $379 million operating deficit, organized 23,000 volunteers, galvanized community spirit, and oversaw an unprecedented security mobilization just months after the September 11th attacks, leading to one of the most successful Olympics in our country’s history.

Early Business Success

Prior to his Olympic service, Romney enjoyed a noted career helping businesses grow and improve their operations. From 1978 to 1984, Mr. Romney was a Vice President at Bain & Company, Inc., a leading management consulting firm. Following a period of decline after Romney’s departure, he returned as CEO several years later and engineered a complete recovery. Today, Bain & Company employs more than 2,000 people in 25 offices worldwide.

In 1984, Romney founded Bain Capital, one of the nation’s most successful venture capital and investment companies. Bain Capital helped launch hundreds of companies on a successful course, including Staples, Bright Horizons Family Solutions, Domino’s Pizza, Sealy, Brookstone, and The Sports Authority.

Governor Romney has been deeply involved in community and civic affairs, serving extensively in his church and numerous charities including, City Year, the Boy Scouts, and the Points of Light Foundation. He also earned Massachusetts’ 1994 Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.

Governor Romney received his B.A., with Highest Honors, from Brigham Young University in 1971. In 1975, he was awarded an MBA from Harvard Business School, where he was named a Baker Scholar, and a J.D., cum laude, from Harvard Law School.

Finally, I think it inevitable that Romney must also replicate a JFK moment and directly address the religion issue in an attempt to sweep it away as did JFK nearly half a century ago. This religious litmus test idea should have died in the early 1960’s–but apparently did not. Hopefully not only for himself but other future political candidates Romney can drive a dagger through the heart of this religious bias and bigotry before the 2008 presidential is in full swing.

Note:  David over at A Soft Answer also has a good write up on this here.