The parallels to Mitt Romney's Mormon problem are evident. Like the Catholic Church in Britain, the LDS Church is viewed with suspicion by sectors of the American electorate -- some, both on the religious right and secular left, view it as a "cult," while others have raised the (spurious) specter of a "Mormon theocracy" dictated not by the Pope, but by the church's Prophet. Gallup polls show that 22 percent of voters -- including 19 percent of independents -- would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate.
Given the detrimental electoral effects of his Mormon affiliation, it is not surprising that Romney's advisers have taken a page out of the Blair playbook and opted to downplay it. But can they duplicate Blair's success?
The evidence is mixed. On the one hand, Blair's example shows that a campaign can sidestep the religion issue if it persistently refuses to address it. Voters will ultimately base their decision on more immediate and consequential concerns, like the economy. On the other hand, Romney operates in a very different political and media climate than Blair did during his prime ministership, which makes him a hard act to follow.
First, unlike Britain, America has a long tradition of civil religion, with politicians expected to pay homage to its tropes and tenets -- like closing speeches with "God bless America" -- in their rhetoric. It is far more difficult to avoid talking about religion in this sort of atmosphere than it was for Blair in largely secular Britain. Indeed, Romney has made frequent reference to the touchstones of American civil religion in his paeans to American exceptionalism. But with each invocation of this tradition, he opens the door to questions about what he really believes.
Second, the media environment has changed dramatically since Blair occupied 10 Downing Street. With the advent of Twitter, other social media, and viral videos, a stray incendiary remark about Mormonism can quickly overtake the news cycle when it previously would have languished in obscurity. In this climate, the Romney campaign will be bombarded with far more questions and soundbites about the candidate's religious views than Blair ever was.
Lastly, Romney's personality and positions -- or lack thereof -- make his religion a far more enticing topic for journalists and voters. Unlike Blair, whose New Labour platform and easy charisma lent focus and coherence to his campaign and personal narrative, Romney comes across as lacking definition and core convictions. Nature abhors a vacuum; faced with a blank canvas, reporters and interested onlookers will seek to fill it. From this vantage point, Romney's religion presents a tantalizing target for such investigations -- a window into the soul of a supposedly soulless candidate.
For now, it looks like Team Romney is betting that the electorate is more concerned with the economy than with media-fueled frenzies over their candidate's church, and that the Tony Blair strategy can transplant to America. Whether they are right remains to be seen.