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JOHN H. BUNZEL

Is America ready for a Mormon president?

A RECENT Gallup poll shows that even among Republicans, 7 in 10 voters are more likely to support a candidate in 2008 who disagrees with the Karl Rove-George Bush plan of creating a long-term Republican era that panders to the religious right and drives away many moderates.

Many Republicans believe that Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, though still considered a long shot, could emerge as the ''dream candidate" they will be looking for: an attractive social conservative in one of the bluest of blue states (he opposed the Supreme Judicial Court's legalization of gay marriage) whose CEO-style leadership will please the party's conservative base while not alienating middle-of-the-road voters.

Knowing that today's front-runner, possibly John McCain, won't necessarily be 2008's front-runner, they think Romney has a good chance of beating him in the early eastern GOP primaries.

But Romney has a problem. He is a Mormon, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which, as Washington Monthly's editor Amy Sullivan points out, makes him unacceptable to evangelical voters who make up 30 percent of the Republican electorate. Their hostility to Mormonism is not some vague prejudice that some Americans have. It's a ''doctrinal thing," based on their conviction that Mormonism ''isn't just another religion," but a ''cult" that they claim is ''false," ''blasphemous," and a threat to the Christian religion.

But Romney has an additional and perhaps even more serious problem. As taught by Mormon prophets from Brigham Young's day to the late 1970s, blacks have been regarded as ''not equal with other races," an inequality (to quote Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie) that is ''the Lord's doing based on his eternal laws of justice." Mormon theologians have justified this racial bias by asserting that the black race is descended from Cain, who was cursed and marked (supposedly with a black skin) and whose descendants continued to bear the mark and the curse.

In 1978, the ban against African-Americans in the Mormon priesthood was dropped, along with long-standing church doctrines that were used to bolster claims of black inferiority. However, critics of the church maintain that although the ban has been removed, the doctrine has not changed. ''It's the linkage to Cain that so distresses Mormon African-Americans today," says California attorney Dennis Gladwell, who has been working with church leaders calling for change. ''It places their spiritual lineage in shambles, since they are alleged descendants of a man who has come to symbolize evil on the same level as Lucifer himself."

One should not be surprised if -- or when -- the media press the governor on other issues, polygamy for instance, which the Mormon church no longer condones, and Romney says little more than that his belief in Jesus Christ and serving one's neighbor and community are widely shared values.

But didn't John Kennedy in 1960 prove that religion has nothing to do with a candidate's political qualifications to be president? Yes -- for Catholics. However, 46 years later, a public declaration of one's personal religiosity is now required of all presidential candidates as evidence that they live by a deep-rooted moral yardstick confirmed by their religious faith.

This resurgence of religion underscores a powerful force in recent presidential races -- namely, the rise of values politics framed as moral issues. One message is clear: Those whose religious faith is perceived as sincere and ''real" will have demonstrated the strength of character necessary to lead our country.

Little wonder that since the 2004 elections, the Democrats -- acknowledging that the Republicans have been far more successful in winning over religious and faith-friendly voters -- have been developing religious outreach programs, hiring faith advisers, and training candidates on how to ''talk the talk" that will attract more church-going voters.

At a time when the Bush-led Republican Party has made a presidential candidate's personal religious faith a test of his or her moral stature and authority, this very test could disqualify Romney in the eyes of many Republicans as the core tenets of his faith are circulated to bring out sharply the strong opposition of Mormon theology to Christian doctrine.

Or, to put it in evangelical terms (as Sullivan has done), ''It might be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for Mitt Romney to win the Republican nomination."

John H. Bunzel, a past president of San Jose State University, is a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

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