Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is one of this campaign season’s biggest wild cards.  It could affect evangelical turnout and even might discourage those others for whom the Mormon church and the state of Utah retain a certain cultish stigma.

From an L.A. Times Op/Ed by author Sally Denton:

“MITT ROMNEY’S Mormonism threatens his presidential candidacy in the same way that John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism did when he ran for president in 1960. Overt and covert references to Romney’s religion — subtle whispering as well as unabashed inquiries about the controversial sect he belongs to — plague his campaign. None of his responses so far have silenced the skeptics.

Recent polls indicate that from 25% to 35% of registered voters have said they would not consider voting for a Mormon for president, and conventional wisdom from the pundits suggests that Romney’s biggest hurdle is his faith. Everyone seems eager to make his Mormonism an issue, from blue state secularists to red state evangelicals who view the religion as a non-Christian cult.”

Mitt Romney has been at pains to demonstrate that his religion is in line with the American mainstream, though last month he raised eyebrows by citing Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth as his favorite novel.  The title is better known, of course, as the infamous 2001 John Travolta movie adaptation that bombed at the box office and is currently ranked 64th in the Internet Movie Database’s “Bottom 100” films category.

Still, Romney has persisted in efforts to reach out to evangelicals and more mainline protestant denominations without distancing themselves from Mormonism.  The question is whether respondents are willing to admit politically incorrect beliefs to those administering polls.  Romney is in a fairly healthy position in the race right now, which could change if Fred Thompson formally enters the election.  But if people who reject his Mormonism are unwilling to admit it publicly, Romney’s poll numbers may show a variant of the “Bradley Effect” — the phenomenon which often gives black candidates a phantom several points in opinion polls that do not translate into votes on election day.

To most outsiders, Romney seems unwavering and fully dedicated to to his faith.  But some Mormons are suggesting that the former governor is showing insufficient fealty to his religion’s history and scripture.

From The New York Times:

‘Some Mormons have watched with concern how Mr. Romney has responded to grilling by interviewers about his church’s distinctive doctrines. […]

Mr. Romney’s tendency to gloss over Mormonism’s history and distinctive tenets has upset some fellow Mormons. Some said they cringed when Mr. Romney said on “60 Minutes,” “I can’t imagine anything more awful than polygamy.”

Tom Grover, 26, a Mormon who is the host of a weekday talk show on politics on radio station KVNU here, said that while he thinks Mr. Romney has handled the scrutiny admirably, some of his callers were incensed about Mr. Romney’s repudiation of his own ancestors’ polygamy. The church outlawed the practice a century ago, but members are taught to understand that polygamy had a theological and historical context in the church, which Mr. Romney’s remark ignored.

“That really left a bad taste in people’s mouths,” Mr. Grover said. “That’s a tough thing for people to hear when their ancestors sacrificed a lot to live that life. They probably wouldn’t bring polygamy back, but they honor the place of it in church history.”’

This doesn’t seem fair to categorize as a flip-flop, considering that any politician must vigorously come out against something like polygamy, and the explanation doesn’t quite fit in a 5-second soundbite.  The next one is more substantive.

The article continues:

‘Another case arose when George Stephanopoulos of ABC News asked Mr. Romney about a Mormon teaching that Jesus will come to the United States when he returns to reign on earth. Mr. Romney responded that the Messiah will return to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, “the same as the other Christian tradition.”

Mr. Grover said some of his radio listeners were astounded.

“They were just in disbelief, saying that’s not true, Jesus is coming back to Missouri,” Mr. Grover said. “It’s the L.D.S. Church’s 10th article of faith that Zion will be built upon the American continent.” […]

John Dehlin, 37, who produces the podcast here, said, “I don’t see him as any worse than any other politician out there, but I wanted my guy, who represents my church, to be different.”

“I had the hope that Romney would be steadfast, be up front and have integrity and consistency, but I’ve been disillusioned,” Mr. Dehlin said. “It makes me a lot less proud than I otherwise would have been.”’

The Times cautions that these criticisms are emanating from an apparent minority of the electorate, and that Romney remains the leading candidate in Utah:

‘Such critical views, however, were overshadowed in interviews here and in Salt Lake City by enthusiasm for Mr. Romney.’

The question if Romney waffled on his faith depends on the significance of his having denied the Mormon Church’s 10th article of faith, which is part of most Latter-Day Saints’ official scripture and does indeed read that:

’10. We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.’

The question of whether Romney is abandoning his faith is ultimately up to individual interpretation of Mormon scripture, it would seem, since the text doesn’t explicitly say where Christ is supposed to return.  Time will tell if he’ll keep the strong support of Utah’s decisive Mormon voters, who are informed enough to come to their own conclusions on this issue.