If Mitt Romney wins the presidential election this fall, he'll have Harry Reid partly to thank.
The Republican presidential nominee and the Senate Democratic leader don't have much in common politically. But they're both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — that is, they're both Mormons.
So whenever officials of the LDS church are asked about the once-common concern that a Mormon president might take orders from Salt Lake City, they have a ready answer: Just look at Harry Reid. Only last month, Reid endorsed President Obama's decision to support gay marriage, a position that conflicts with the church's views.
"Harry Reid and Orrin Hatch [the Republican senator from Utah] will both tell you that they've never received a phone call from Salt Lake telling them how to vote," Michael Otterson, the church's chief spokesman, told me this week.
Historically, the barrier for a Mormon candidate has been so high that political scientists David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam once dubbed it a "stained-glass ceiling."
But to a remarkable degree, there's no longer a "Mormon issue" in this campaign.
Romney's biggest hurdle was always the Republican primary campaign because many evangelical Protestants, a significant share of GOP voters, view the LDS church as non-Christian.
Last year, at a Values Voter conference, a prominent evangelical pastor from Dallas, Robert Jeffress, explicitly urged voters to oppose Romney because of his faith. "He is not a Christian," Jeffress charged.
But by April, even Jeffress had undergone a conversion experience and was ready to endorse Romney for president. "Jesus isn't on the ballot this year," he said. "Many times, voting is voting for the lesser of two evils."
That sentiment is mirrored in opinion polls. In surveys by the Pew Research Center in May and June, 91% of Republicans said they planned to vote for Romney this fall despite the divisive primary campaign. In the same polls, 71% of white evangelicals said they intended to vote for Romney, not far from the 73% who voted for Sen. John McCain in 2008. When a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked whether voters thought a Mormon president would "cause concerns," Democrats were more likely to say yes than Republicans.
And if Republicans are willing to let the issue of Romney's religion lie, so are Democrats — if for no other reason than the risk of backlash. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, caused a stir in April by saying Romney's roots lay in "a polygamy commune in Mexico," but the White House and other Democrats quickly condemned the remark. (Romney's grandfather was a leader in a Mormon community in northern Mexico, but he did not engage in polygamy, a practice the church abandoned more than a century ago.)
Meanwhile, some prominent members of the LDS church have argued that Romney should talk more about his religious experience, not less.
"He has, in his life, so many stories about helping people from the bottom of the economic spectrum all the way to the top," Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School who has known Romney for decades, told reporters at a seminar on what has been called the "Mormon moment." More talk about his experiences might help humanize Romney and help voters see him as more than just a wealthy businessman, Christensen said. "I think his handlers just don't get it," he complained.
Romney has spoken about his faith only occasionally during the campaign, and even then has rebuffed questions about doctrine. When Romney spoke before a mostly evangelical audience at Liberty University in May, he talked about believers' "shared moral convictions" and "common worldview," but never referred explicitly to his own beliefs.
"Most people don't care if you go to a different church; they care about shared values," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in an email response to my questions.
But that hasn't stopped the LDS church itself from seizing the moment to defend its doctrines and push back against what it sees as misconceptions.
At a presentation to reporters in Washington this week, church spokesman Otterson even showed a set of PowerPoint slides that demonstrated, among other things, that Mormon health practices are good for you.
Practicing members of the church not only avoid alcohol, coffee and cigarettes; they also go without food and drink one day a month. And medical researchers, Otterson said, have found that occasional fasting results in fewer clogged arteries. Mormon men in California have a life expectancy of more than 84 years, almost 10 years longer than non-Mormon men, another study found.
"Does it really matter one whit where the Garden of Eden was originally located?" he asked. "We get asked questions like that every day, while the things that impel Latter-day Saints to be good neighbors and citizens are left unaddressed."
The presidential campaign still has more than four months to run — still time for voters to ask Romney how his Mormon faith and his years as a lay leader and counselor have shaped his views.
But even if he doesn't open up about the role religion has played in his life, the evidence suggests that Romney has already accomplished a milestone for his once-derided church: He's broken through its stained-glass ceiling.