As a teenager, spiritually educated in the Southern Baptist church and a conservative evangelical Christian school, I learned that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a cult, and that its members, the Mormons, most certainly were not Christians.

I heard repeatedly about Mormons' strange theological beliefs and about how to counter their evangelistic efforts with a response that Mormonism was a threat to "real Christians." And I can recall vividly reading the book "The Kingdom of the Cults."

Chapter Six: The Mormons.

The book outlined various Mormon "false teachings," the most egregious (at the time) being the addition of other literature beyond the Bible. "The Book of Mormon," "Doctrine and Covenants" and "The Pearl of Great Price" clearly violate, I was taught, the biblical prohibition against adding or subtracting anything away from Scripture.

These days, I don't think the LDS church is a cult. Nor do I believe Mormons are a threat to Christianity, true or otherwise. My impression of LDS church members is overall a positive one. They are, in my experience, largely a devout, accomplished, polite people.

The fear-based education I received about the Mormon menace didn't take. And while I don't buy what the LDS church is selling, I have enough historical perspective to realize that usually the difference between a cult and a religion is point of view.

All religious beliefs are equally weird. Just how weird is in the eye of the beholder. So what happens when the beholder is a voter?

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is a Mormon and a favorite among the Republicans campaigning for president.

Of late, Romney's Mormonism has become a political volleyball and I'm certain, as the 2008 election draws nigh, his beliefs and identity as a Mormon will be thoroughly scrutinized.

Last year, a Gallup Poll indicated that 66 percent of Americans are not "ready" for a Mormon president, and a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that 37 percent of voters said they would not put a Mormon in the Oval Office.

Romney insists his church doesn't instruct him one way or another in political matters. Forty-some years ago, John F. Kennedy said basically the same thing about his Roman Catholic faith, hoping to allay fears that the White House would be reporting to the Vatican.

Were Romney to become the first Mormon president of the United States, I'm doubtful the executive branch would be taking orders from Salt Lake City. That fear is as baseless now as it was in 1960.

Still, evangelicals make up about a quarter of the voting public.

And neither Romney nor any other candidate, no matter how otherwise appealing, will be able to sway many evangelical hearts on the issue of Mormon doctrine.

Romney's greatest hurdle may be the overall impression many Americans have of Mormonism in general. I'd describe it as a wariness of the weirdness.

When Gallup polled Americans in February, 46 percent said they had an "unfavorable" impression of Mormonism. When asked what first comes to mind when they think of the LDS church, the No. 1 answer was polygamy.

Other answers in the top 10 were "door-to-door evangelizing," "weird beliefs" and "big families."

No matter how many times church leaders repeat that the LDS church outlawed polygamy more than a century ago, the idea that all Mormons -- not just a few creepy ones in desert compounds -- practice or condone multiple marriage seems to stick.

Some Romney detractors try to build their case (for a Mormon cabal) by mentioning that his great-grandfather practiced polygamy. Well, my great-grandfather may have been a pig farmer, but I'm not hiding any swine in the backyard.

While the doctrinal differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity are immovable stumbling blocks for many evangelicals, the majority of Americans don't cast their ballots based on a candidate's theology.

Morals, ethics and character -- or the appearance thereof -- are a different story.

Is the candidate a good man (or woman)? Is he or she trustworthy?

Smart? Ethical? Pro-family (whatever that means)? Does he or she walk the talk, or live hypocritically?

Romney wouldn't get my vote because of his political ideology, but his religious beliefs wouldn't give me pause.

A churchgoing, clean-living, non-cussing, doesn't-even-drink-coffee Mormon could hardly be any worse for this country than a warmongering Methodist or a Southern Baptist with a hyperactive libido.


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