WASHINGTON — Concerning Mormons and Republicans, history offers a large helping of irony. In 1843, an Army officer named John C. Fremont led a geographical expedition of 39 men more than 1,700 miles to the shores of the Great Salt Lake. His report on the journey inspired hounded Mormons to mount their wagons and resettle in the Great Basin.
Thirteen years later in Philadelphia, Fremont became the first presidential nominee of the Republican Party, which adopted a platform opposing the "twin relics of barbarism — Polygamy, and Slavery." The slogan, and the anti-Mormon sentiment behind it, caught on. A Republican rally in Indianapolis, reportedly attended by 60,000 people, included an ox-drawn parade wagon depicting Brigham Young along with six wives dressed in hoop skirts, each with a little Brigham in her arms.
In Tampa later this month, Republicans will cheer themselves hoarse for a Mormon nominee. And a nation that carefully marks and celebrates every ethnic and religious first won't take much notice. The Mormon church — for which visibility has often brought persecution — is unlikely to crow about the achievement. And Mitt Romney is probably getting advice to downplay his religion. That was the case in 2007, when Romney explained that he liked the idea of giving a speech on his faith, but "the political advisers tell me, 'No, no, no, it's not a good idea. It draws too much attention to that issue alone.'"
This cautiousness is understandable. In the typology of sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, Mormons remain a rejected "out-group," unlike accepted "in-groups" such as Catholics and Jews. Large majorities of Americans perceive Mormonism as "very different" from their own religious beliefs.
But in this case, the counsel of religious reticence is wrong. Romney should not be afraid to highlight his faith.
The political risks are overblown. A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that more than 80 percent of voters who know Romney is a Mormon are either comfortable with his faith or it doesn't matter to them. And even among the margin of the uncomfortable — including some secularists and evangelicals — this concern doesn't dictate voting behavior. In American politics, partisanship is a far stronger political force than theological affinity. "Overwhelming majorities of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who know Romney is Mormon support him, whether they are comfortable with his religion or not," the Pew study concludes. "Conversely, about nine in ten Democrats and Democratic-leaners intend to vote for Barack Obama, regardless of their view of Romney's faith."
Questions remain about the role of Mormonism in depressing evangelical political enthusiasm. Some religious conservatives are concerned that a Romney presidency would provide theological legitimacy for a rival, proselytizing faith. But it is unclear how silence from Romney on religion would mitigate this fear. And a portion of the evangelical enthusiasm gap is explainable for another reason entirely: the suspicions of social conservatives about the authenticity of Romney's social conservatism.
Romney's pressing need to inject some authenticity — or at least some personality — into his campaign is the primary reason he should talk more about his faith. Take away Romney's religion and you are left with Harvard, Bain and various corporate boardrooms. Mormonism has been one of the main stages for his leadership, as well as the main setting where he has displayed humanity. He has been a missionary, a lay minister, a spiritual guide. He has delivered sermons, counseled couples and worked with leaders of other faiths. Mormonism is the reason for Romney's rectitude, the explanation for his wholesomeness, the key to understanding his persona. Without it, he would merely be a stiff, able management consultant. Romney's reticence on religion leaves a large personal and biographical gap.
This does not mean Romney should quote from the Book of Jarom in his convention speech. It is constitutionally improper for a president (or prospective president) to be sectarian. But it is constitutionally appropriate — and politically advisable for Romney — to tell his whole personal story, which is uninteresting without his faith. Romney needs to tether his character and values to an immovable stake. And he has every cause to praise the generosity of a country where no group need be an "out-group" forever.
In the process, Romney would accomplish for Mormonism what others achieved for Catholicism and Judaism — the incorporation of a new tradition into American civil religion. This does not involve theological acceptance, just a recognition of common values and common citizenship. And it may come easier for Mormonism than many imagine, because no faith is more distinctly American.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.