You've probably heard by now that Mitt Romney has a Mormon problem. It seems every pollster of note has published a poll showing that many Americans consider Mr. Romney's membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - commonly called the Mormon Church - a potential deal-breaker.
John F. Kennedy faced a similar challenge as he campaigned to become the first president who was a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Many are encouraging Mr. Romney, the Republican former governor of Massachusetts, to borrow several pages from the JFK playbook - especially the speech he delivered to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960.
If you haven't read the speech, you should. It's a timeless masterpiece. But like many great works of art, its overarching brilliance masks a flaw or two in its background. Mr. Romney would be well served by echoing most of what Mr. Kennedy had to say in the speech, but one line of reasoning advanced by JFK seems so absurd to me that I'm surprised he got away with it.
Consider what Mr. Kennedy had to say about his personal views on religion and church affiliation:
"So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again - not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me. ... I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair."
Common sense alone should lead us to conclude that exactly the opposite is necessary. If a candidate truly believes in a church, its principles are likely to be the most fundamental building blocks of that person's character. And personal character is always one of the key attributes voters should consider when electing a president. Thus, it seems obvious that voters should try to ascertain both the depth of a candidate's faith and the primary principles of that faith.
Times have changed, and in more recent presidential campaigns, the press has done a pretty good job of providing insight into each candidate's depth of faith. Imposters who are not active in their faith or whose actions are not in harmony with the faith they profess are usually exposed over the course of a campaign.
Unfortunately, the media have not been very good at providing insight into the primary principles of any candidate's faith. It's understandable. Reporters are not theologians and naturally shy away from the topic. But as Mr. Kennedy discovered in 1960, members of other faiths who have an ax to grind are more than willing to fill the vacuum, turning theological molehills into mountains of misconception.
Mr. Romney's faith is more susceptible than most to this problem because only 2 percent of Americans are Mormon. To put that in perspective, about 25 percent of Americans are Catholic and 50 percent are Protestant. So unless you are Mormon, or you've invited the door-knocking Mormon missionaries into your home for a chat, it's not very likely that you know much about the principal beliefs of the Latter-day Saints.
Mr. Romney should guard against misinformation defining his faith by speaking openly about it when asked. As someone who was once Protestant and is now Mormon, I'm confident that most Americans would find the primary principles of Mr. Romney's faith compatible with their own.
There are certainly some aspects that voters will find unusual and unorthodox. But that's no big deal. Most churchgoers don't even agree with some aspects of their own faith. And on matters of personal spirituality, Americans cut the sincerely faithful a lot of slack.
After all, America was initially a haven for those whose faith was ridiculed and condemned elsewhere. Too many bigoted Americans have forsaken their roots, but tolerance and respect for sincere but unorthodox spirituality are still dominant traits in the DNA of most Americans.
That's why Mr. Romney should borrow most, but not all, of Mr. Kennedy's Houston speech. If he hopes to overcome the Mormon problem, Mr. Romney would be best served by not hiding his religion behind a cloak of privacy.
Bruce Wilson is a Utah-based columnist and author of "Disarming the Culture War." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.