Few Americans voiced concerns about the Mormon faith when Mitt Romney's father ran for president 40 years ago, probably because the guy flamed out so quickly. As a Republican colleague, Gov. James Rhodes of Ohio, remarked at the time, "Watching George Romney run for the presidency was like watching a duck try to make love to a football."

But Mitt Romney is a serious contender in 2008, rich and disciplined, and he's running in an era when presidential candidates are virtually expected to parade their religiosity. This is particularly true in the Republican camp, where religion and politics are now routinely intertwined; indeed, candidate George W. Bush upped the ante in 2000, when he said that his favorite philosopher was Jesus, "because he changed my life."

So it's no surprise Romney is facing questions about his lifelong devotion to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the breakaway theology that considers itself humankind's "one true church." He had hoped to stonewall this issue, insisting in a TV interview 18 months ago that "I'm never going to get into a discussion about my personal beliefs."

But today word is circulating that Romney will discuss his faith in an autumn speech - and seek to disarm the skeptics much the way John F. Kennedy in 1960 dampened fears that a Catholic president would take orders from Rome.

Romney is dealing with potential hostility, fair or not, on several fronts. Many Christian fundamentalists, particularly southern Baptists, dismiss Mormonism as a cult (thereby imperiling Romney in the GOP primaries, particularly in pivotal South Carolina). Many secular voters are uncomfortable with the church's passion for proselytizing and its superior attitude, particularly its scriptural insistence that all nonbelievers are worshiping "the church of the devil." Pollsters say that at least 30 percent of voters won't back a Mormon.

Romney's biggest problem is that skeptics are simply weirded out. They cannot quite envision having a president who believes that a man named Joseph Smith dug up a book of golden plates, long buried in a hillside, with the help of an angel named Moroni in 1827; that these plates, written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, spelled out the precepts of the true Christian faith; that Smith translated these hieroglyphics by wearing decoder glasses and burying his head in a hat; that Jesus visited North America after the resurrection; that the Garden of Eden was really in Missouri.

As Romney himself recently told conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt, "I believe in my faith. I love my faith, and I would in no way, shape, or form try to distance myself from my faith or the fundamental beliefs of my faith." He was a church leader in Massachusetts, as were his forebears out West. And his great-grandfather had five wives, after being personally instructed to practice polygamy by Smith's successor, Brigham Young.

But does all this mean Romney is too weird to lead America? The truth is, most religions look weird to outsiders. Perhaps it's no more appropriate to ask Romney whether he rationally believes the Garden of Eden was in Missouri than it would be to ask a Catholic candidate whether he rationally believes that the wafer he eats on Sunday is the actual body and blood of Jesus, or to ask a Jewish candidate whether he rationally thinks that Moses parted the Red Sea. Most Americans, rational in their professional lives, accept religious doctrines as a matter of private faith, or simply as metaphor.

Romney will undoubtedly try to "do a JFK" when he opts to confront these issues. Kennedy told an audience of Protestant ministers that his religion would not influence his job. Romney, in his sketchy remarks thus far, has similarly insisted that his oath to uphold the Constitution would take precedent.

But Romney has a more difficult task. Whereas Kennedy mollified skeptics by declaring that "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," Romney can ill afford to say that. Conservative Christian voters, who wield great influence in Republican primaries, do not believe in "absolute" separation. Romney would commit political suicide if he echoed JFK; nor would he want to, for personal reasons. He has repeatedly signaled that religion belongs in the public square, and that the tenets of his faith have infused his conservative politics.

Those arguments might be enough to propel him through the primaries; the general election might be another story. Some questions do seem appropriate.

First, the Mormon faith puts a high premium on "faith-promoting" information, sometimes at the expense of unpleasant facts. As a high-ranking Mormon leader said in a famous 1981 speech, "Some things that are true are not very useful." Would Romney be able to assure swing voters that he would not merely perpetuate the faith-based thinking, and the rejection of empirical reality, that has trapped us in a ruinous war?

Second, since the Mormons consider themselves stewards of "a quintessentially American faith" (Romney's words), and since Mormons believe Jesus will return and rule the world from U.S. territory, does this suggest that a President Romney might wave the flag a bit too fervently, at a time when we need to repair our relations around the world? The Mormon faith is heavily rooted in what is commonly called "American exceptionalism," the belief that we are special and we know best. Would Romney govern accordingly, and, if so, would that be a help or a hindrance in the war on terror?

What matters, in other words, is not whether he really thinks Joseph Smith met an angel in 1827. The crucial issue is whether, or how, a devout Mormon would apply his faith on the job in 2009. His supporters have suggested that any such questions are symptoms of religious bigotry, but it is the Republican Party, over the past several decades, that has put religion front and center. They have made Mitt Romney fair game.

The American Debate |

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Contact Dick Polman at dpolman@phillynews.com. His blog, which is excerpted on the Tuesday Commentary Page, is at http://go.philly.com/polman.