Much has changed since Mitt Romney last ran for president. The economy has gotten worse and the United States killed Osama bin Laden.
Sadly, one thing that hasn't changed is the reluctance of a significant number of Americans to vote for him because of his Mormon faith. In a nationwide poll last month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 25 percent said they would be less likely to support a Mormon for president, compared with 30 percent in February 2007.
Who are they? It seems that reluctance to vote for a Mormon is about the only thing on which many evangelical Protestants and liberal Democrats agree. The former, of course, present a significant stumbling block for Romney and fellow Mormon Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and potential presidential candidate, given the number of evangelicals in early caucus and primary states such as Iowa and South Carolina.
Romney was optimistic earlier this year during an interview with CNN's Piers Morgan.
"I can't judge the politics. I don't know the answer to that," he said. "My experience so far, in Massachusetts running as a Mormon guy in a state that's overwhelmingly of other faiths, is it didn't seem to get in my way there. But most people in the country recognize that, in fact, the nation itself was founded on the principle of religious tolerance and freedom."
My interaction with radio callers tells me he is overly optimistic. I've heard from many voters willing to state their hesitancy to vote for a Mormon, including "Sean," a self-described Catholic from Indianapolis.
"I'm in that group that won't vote for a Mormon," he told me. Why? "Because I think it implies poor judgment and critical-thinking skills."
Sean's critique didn't surprise Anthea Butler, a religion professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "Most Americans don't know the basic history and beliefs of their own faith, let alone any of the major religious traditions," Butler told me.
Sean, and those who make up the quarter of the country unwilling to elect a Mormon, believe the followers of Mormonism are insufficiently dubious about their own religion.
How else to explain Mormons' adherence to a faith founded by Joseph Smith, who told his followers that he had been visited at age 14 by God the Father and Jesus, who instructed him not to join an established church? A few years later, Smith would translate the Book of Mormon, based on inscriptions on gold plates buried in the ground, with a "seeing stone." Today, participants wear special undergarments to remind them of the tenets of their faith and to protect them. They also refrain from consuming coffee or tea, which the sect refers to as "hot drinks."
Sean's group knows better than to believe this, as well as whatever might underpin the faith of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even Scientologists.
Take the latter. This church is predicated upon events of 75 million years ago when an intergalactic warlord released millions of soul-like beings into Earth's atmosphere. Those beings, called thetans, harbor confusion and conflict, which they use to wreak havoc on the individuals they come to inhabit. In 1951, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard introduced the electro-psychometer, or E-meter, to aid in detecting the unhealthy and potentially damaging subconscious memories these thetans carry with them.
No doubt Sean can just imagine what the Buddhists say about the Scientologists. These thetans were reincarnated from what, exactly? When did they go through their cycles of birth, life, and death? And how did they learn to release their attachment to desire and the self so they could attain Nirvana?
And no way Sean would be comfortable with all that Muslim stuff. Islam's holy text includes reference to Allah's creating man from a clot of blood, not to mention angels adorned with as many as four pairs of wings. Muslims believe it takes unwavering belief in God and a lifetime of good deeds to reach Paradise.
Perhaps Sean is more comfortable with Jewish beliefs. Jews readily understand that the Earth was created in six days (and that God rested on the seventh). And they appreciate Noah's survival of a great flood after building an ark big enough to hold two of each animal, the drowning of the oppressive Pharaoh's army after Moses parted the Red Sea, and the conquest of Canaan, complete with walls toppled by shouts and the sun standing still in the sky.
Still, they, too, can learn a few things from Christians.
Chalk it up to a sense of logic and common sense that comes from understanding a virgin birth, complete with a star over Bethlehem that served as a marker to three wise men, not to mention how decades later, this son of God would walk on the water of the Sea of Galilee, convert water into wine, and rise from the dead after being crucified in front of scores of witnesses.
Critical thinking is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. Amen.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.