How Mitt Romney's Mormon faith will affect the presidential campaign is among 2012's biggest political enigmas: He doesn't say much about it on the trail.
Romney, however, is arguably the most actively religious major-party presidential candidate in modern times. He was bishop of his Massachusetts ward from 1981 to 1986 and was president of his stake -- the rough equivalent of a Catholic diocese -- from 1986 to 1994.
But even in California, where in 2008 Mormons raised their political profile in an all-out fight to outlaw gay marriage with Proposition 8, almost nobody is dwelling on Romney's religion -- at least publicly. And individual voters rarely voice the ambivalence that polls show many Americans have about electing a Mormon as president.
The Golden State isn't a presidential battleground, but Nevada is. And Californians' phone-banking and precinct-walking efforts there -- for or against Romney -- could tip the balance in a battleground state. But most gay activists say they don't think many people will travel to the Silver State to "pay back" Mormons for helping to defeat Proposition 8.
"I have Mormon friends, I have gay Mormon friends, and honestly I don't care if Mitt Romney is a Mormon," said Billy Bradford, 56, a gay-marriage activist from Castro Valley. "It really doesn't enter into it -- it's him, it's his 'one-percent' mentality, his white heterosexual privilege problem that I don't like."
Romney's position on
Bay Area Mormons seem to agree that Romney's religion is much less important than his politics.
Mormon Evelyn Candland, 62, a Republican from Danville, said she's more inclined to vote for someone "who has solid faith in God," no matter the denomination.
"You're going to make policy and decisions based on what you believe to be right,'' she said, "so I don't see how anyone can divorce themselves from the beliefs they have."
The reason she's supporting Romney is that she wants to see Obama booted from office. "The economy is in a real mess and we need somebody new in there," she said.
Interestingly, a Gallup poll conducted in early June found 43 percent of Americans didn't know Romney is a Mormon. In the same survey, 18 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who happens to be a Mormon. Only hypothetical candidates who were gay, Muslim or atheist fared worse.
Marriage Equality USA spokesman Stuart Gaffney agreed the gay community is likelier to be galvanized by Romney's own words and deeds than by what his church did with Proposition 8 -- for example, Romney's vow at this month's NAACP convention to defend traditional marriage. "Equality-minded voters will be watching much more closely the Mitt Romney of 2012 trying to use those stances to divide and conquer," Gaffney said. "It's less a matter of where one faith has been on this issue."
California is home to more Mormons than any state but Utah. Four states have fewer people than California has Mormons: Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota and Alaska.
Alex McMurray, 38, of Castro Valley, said he believes most members of his faith "would be more relieved that a Republican is elected president than a Mormon. I honestly think party politics is more important to them than religion in determining their vote."
McMurray is a rarity: a Mormon who voted for President Obama in 2008 and is likely to do so again this year. A Pew Research Center survey conducted late last year found 66 percent of Mormons call themselves politically conservative, compared with 37 percent of the general public, and 74 percent support the Republican Party.
But for McMurray, a public school teacher not affiliated with any political party, "the fact that Romney and I believe God has the same characteristics or that he and share a philosophy about what the life after this one will be like is almost irrelevant to me. I think people should be more concerned that he's just kind of out of touch with the everyday Joe."
But some experts on Mormonism say when they enter the polling booth, Mormons are much more likely to cast a ballot for a fellow Mormon -- to make history if nothing else.
Patrick Mason, chairman of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, predicted that even those few Mormons who are lifelong registered Democrats will vote for Romney because "he's one of us," in hopes he'll do for Mormons what John Kennedy did for Catholics by winning the White House in 1960.
"It's breaking through that stained-glass ceiling," Mason said. "It represents the moment we've gone mainstream, that we've been accepted."
Dean Criddle, president of the Mormon Church's 5,000-strong Oakland Stake, said he hopes the public doesn't think that every stance Romney takes is shared by all Mormons. He, for example, has been "deeply troubled" by Romney's "strident position on immigration" and also is worried by "proposals that would significantly erode the social safety net for the most vulnerable in our society."
Criddle, a 62-year-old Republican lawyer from Piedmont, said he's leaning toward voting for Obama this year, as he did in 2008. But, he added,"I'll wait until I see the whole picture, running mates and all."
There was talk throughout the primary season that evangelical Christian voters, a crucial part of the GOP coalition, would balk at voting for a Mormon. In fact, evangelicals buoyed Rick Santorum to victory in Iowa and Newt Gingrich in South Carolina.
But James Taylor, a religion and politics scholar who chairs the University of San Francisco's politics department, said it's now a different ballgame. Romney's religion "is irrelevant in the states where the evangelicals are strongest because they would never vote for an African-American Democrat who is not from the South," he said.
Evan Chase, a staffer at the California Election Forum website, which offers election recommendations for Christian voters, estimates that no more than 10 to 15 percent of evangelical Christian voters will balk at voting for Romney because he's a Mormon.
"What's important to evangelicals isn't necessarily that a guy is an evangelical himself ... but they're looking for the same values," Chase said. "They would view him in light of his moral positions on abortion, on marriage. And frankly, I think you can put the issue of the economy and debt in the realm of moral issues for a lot of evangelicals."
Source: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints