Here's a question: if Barack Obama had to go through a brutal process of defending the doctrines, sermons and ideology of a church he merely attended, why is Mitt Romney exempted from explaining the doctrines and statements and ideology of a church he was an actual leading official in? I've been doing my best to read up on Romney's life and career and the more you read, the more you agree with one of his fellow worshippers who told the New York Times that Mormonism is

at the center of who he really is, if you scrape everything else off.

You could argue, as I do, that politics and religion are separate spheres and that a candidate's faith 226px-Book_of_Mormon_1830_edition_reprintshould not be a major issue for anyone. But Romney is running as the leader of a party whose modern incarnation is defined by an insistence that religion and politics are inseparable, and Romney's runner-up memorably described president Kennedy's strict affirmation of political secularism as puke-worthy. So there really is no solid defense against an examination of Romney's faith and how it formed him – or questioning some of his faith's stranger doctrines. The media thus far have trod gingerly around the subject for good reason. Anti-Mormon bigotry, like racism, has been part of this country for a long while and in many ways, an election between a black man and a Mormon is a stupendous achievement for toleration in America.

And yet. There must be a way to tell a story about Romney's Mormonism that is illustrative and helpful in understanding a man we could put in the Oval Office rather than bigoted. In my view, this should be a priority for Romney, and he should soon give a speech, like Obama's bright shining moment after the Jeremiah Wright onslaught. But I fear he won't, because any day he is talking aout Mormonism rather than the economy is a lost day. But if Romney thinks Mormonism will somehow not be a factor in this election, he's deluding himself. A new paper suggests a surge in anti-Mormon sentiment in the past few years, and a very stable and resilient anti-Mormon bias among evangelicals – who didn't give Romney a single majority in any of the primary states. Money quote from Buzzfeed's summary:

According to the paper, concern about Mormonism has remained relatively stable among Evangelicals, with 36 percent expressing aversion to an LDS candidate in 2007 and 33 percent doing so in 2012. But among non-religious voters, that number shot up 20 points in the past five years, from 21 percent in 2007 to 41 percent in February. There were also substantial increases in Mormon-averse voters among liberals — 28 percent in 2007 and 43 percent in 2012 — as well as moderates, who went from 22 percent in 2007 to 32 percent this year…

The new study argues that the single most accurate predictor of how a voter views Romney is how he views Mormons — whether or not they are Christian, patriotic, hard-working, and friendly. Strikingly, the correlation between attitudes about Mormonism and support for Romney is even stronger than political ideology or party identification.

Perhaps most potentially distressing to Romney's campaign is the study's finding that conservatives who said they were less likely to vote for a Mormon were much more likely to say they were undecided or would not vote at all in a contest between Obama and Romney.

My italics. One caveat may be that the study was conducted before Romney clinched the nomination – so partisanship may help assuage conservative jitters. But if Karl Rove were running the Obama campaign, we wouldn't be discussing if this would emerge as an issue but how. I don't believe that the Obama campaign, in contrast, can or should touch it. But what I expect is that at some point the sheer enormous new prestige and legitimacy that winning the American presidency would give to the Mormon church will give conservative evangelicals the willies. That won't matter in the South – but it could factor in in Pennsylvania or Colorado or Ohio. And there may be some secular independents who really distrust the LDS Church.

Unless race trumps everything. And unless these very evangelicals also think the dude running against the Mormon is a Muslim. Is this a great country, or what?