First of all, Mitt Romney cannot win the Republican nomination. The Christian/evangelical bloc of the Republican Party will see to that. Do you recall what they did to John McCain in the 2000 presidential primary in South Carolina? McCain was coming off a 19-point drubbing of front-runner George W. Bush in New Hampshire when a surreptitious phone campaign started spreading the rumor that McCain had fathered an African-American child out of wedlock. McCain lost the South Carolina primary and his campaign was effectively over.
The McCain rumor had its roots in the fact that he and his wife have an adopted daughter from Bangladesh whose skin is dark. If McCain's opponents were willing to do this to defeat him, what will they do to Mitt Romney, a member of a church the evangelical right considers a cult?
I'll tell you what they'll do. There will be discussions of LDS temple ceremonies, temple garments, polygamy, priesthood restrictions on blacks, blood atonement, Adam-God theory, etc., etc. They'll bring up every anti-Mormon bullet point you've ever seen, and probably a few you haven't. There will be quotes taken out of context, distortions of doctrine and kernels of truth buried in landfills of inaccuracy.
This will put leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in an absolute no-win situation: If they try to respond to the doctrinal distortions aimed at Romney they will be perceived as defending him and thus supporting his candidacy; if they do nothing, the anti-Mormon assertions will be seen as true. Your 19-year-old missionary serving in Mississippi will spend the rest of his mission trying to explain the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the Adam-God theory, things he probably knows nothing about.
To get a glimpse of what I'm talking about, look at the comments posted in response to the Feb. 8 New York Times article on Romney and religion. At last count there were almost 700 postings, and many of them are written by "educated" anti-Mormons. These comments provide a small taste of the public relations campaign that will surely come in response to any momentum Romney's campaign might generate.
Romney's candidacy has the potential to drag the church into its biggest public relations morass since the Reed Smoot hearings. In fact, it could very well be worse, given the power of the Internet and the blogosphere to disseminate information rapidly and pervasively. The church will spend thousands of dollars and several years refuting the doctrinal distortions that will be used to undermine Romney's candidacy.
Is this what we really want?
In the end I think Mitt Romney could be a terrific president. Given the choice, I'd probably vote for him. But with the minuscule possibility of ever getting that choice, I question the cost. The thought of things sacred to Latter-Day Saints being discussed on "The Today Show" is not something I look forward to.
* TOM WILLIAMS is part-owner of a small construction company and lives in Summit County