Evangelicals may grouse about Mormons calling themselves Christians. But a new national poll by The Salt Lake Tribune shows that most of them still view Mormons as like-minded political allies on such social issues as abortion and gay rights.
That may be why the same poll, as previously reported, shows big majorities of white evangelicals and Republicans say they would feel comfortable voting for a Mormon for president Â although a still-sizable minority of about a quarter of all evangelicals say they would feel uncomfortable.
That minority is big enough that it could hurt Mitt Romney, a Mormon, in GOP primaries Â where most GOP candidates have similar social views, so evangelicals could easily opt instead for someone with religious views more similar to their own.
But if Romney survives to a general election, it could help him against President Barack Obama, whose stands evangelicals more clearly oppose.
"Behind the [voting booth] curtain, they choose between sometimes-conflicting emotions and priorities," National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson told The Tribune about the poll results. "Most evangelicals I know will probably choose what they believe is best for America rather than vote on the basis of a candidate's religious affiliation."
The poll asked likely voters how similar they think their own views on abortion rights and gay rights are to those of the Mormon church Â without telling them if the Utah-based faith has such stands or what they are.
On abortion rights, the poll found that 71 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of white evangelicals figure Mormons had views that are very or somewhat similar to their own, while 66 percent of Democrats believe LDS views are very or somewhat different from their own.
On gay rights, it found that 61 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of white evangelicals believe Mormon views are very or somewhat similar to their own, while 67 percent of Democrats figure LDS views are very or somewhat different.
The poll also had found that 76 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of white evangelicals said they would be comfortable voting for a Mormon for president, while fewer than half of Democrats (46 percent) said they would be.
The survey, conducted Dec. 12-16 for The Tribune by Washington, D.C.-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, interviewed 1,009 registered voters nationwide and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for overall results. Margins of error vary for subcategories. It is 5 percentage points, for instance, on the comfort question.
The poll also asked people if they thought their views on illegal immigration are similar to those of the LDS Church. Most groups, including Republicans, independents and Catholics, said they were not sure on that issue. But of those who had an opinion, Republicans and evangelicals also felt Mormons sided with them, while Democrats figured Latter-day Saints opposed them.
Mark Silk, professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., co-wrote a scholarly paper saying a regression analysis Â comparing how variables interact Â shows Romney lost the GOP nomination in 2008 because of opposition by evangelicals. He says the new poll results show some promise now for the former Massachusetts governor.
"It's important to bear in mind that evangelicals the last time had a candidate they really coalesced around," Silk said. "They liked Mike Huckabee a lot," and they don't appear to be rallying around any single candidate now.
Silk said the fact that most evangelicals view Mormons as political allies on social issues "doesn't make any difference in Republican primaries because all the candidates pretty much have the same position."
"But in a general election, the policy agreements that you found in your poll might carry the day for Romney" against Obama, said John C. Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, who wrote with Silk the paper that said evangelicals cost Romney the 2008 nomination.
"White evangelicals who are skeptical of a Mormon candidate are really skeptical of President Obama," Green added. "After all, he is pro-choice on abortion and has supported gay rights."
Green said Mormons and evangelicals may be following over time a pattern that occurred in recent decades with evangelicals and Roman Catholics.
He said that back in the 1930s and '40s, those groups saw each other as agreeing on most political issues Â but did not trust each other on theology. "Now that's largely changed. Evangelicals and Catholics still don't completely agree on theology, but they've become much more comfortable with each other, and they regularly cooperate on a variety of issues."
Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, told The Tribune that the reasons some evangelicals are hesitant to vote for Mormons "vary because evangelicals are a pretty diverse lot."
"Most Americans like to vote for someone who is like them," Anderson said. "My guess is that many Mormons would vote for a Mormon because they share the same faith. Likewise, many evangelicals prefer to vote for someone who is an evangelical."
Those who say they would not vote for a Mormon probably do so, Anderson said, "because they have often heard about the doctrinal differences between traditional Christian teaching on the Trinity, that the Bible alone is God's written revelation, personal salvation and other doctrines which are not shared by the LDS Church. They fear that voting for a Mormon is an indirect endorsement of beliefs they disagree with."
But Anderson said it appears to him, according to the poll, that most evangelicals "are willing to separate doctrinal differences from voting for the sake of shared social and political goals, including the sanctity of human life and the preservation of traditional marriage."
Silk has his own theory about why some evangelicals are annoyed with Mormons, based on time he spent in Utah last year lecturing at Utah State University.
"To the naked eye, Mormons look like â¦ everything that evangelical Protestants in the South want their people to look like, but never succeed at," he said. "Here's this fabulous behaving group of people â¦ but you have this totally weird religion and you call yourself Christianity. What could be more annoying than that?"