Are we ready for a Mormon president?

Boston, USA - I spent a week earlier this month vacationing with friends in California. Because we don't have a governor with a household name, they inquired who was running Massachusetts. ''Mitt Romney," I replied, adding: ''He's running for president."

That came as news to them, and provoked this rejoinder: ''Really? But isn't he a Mormon? Can a Mormon be elected president?"

''It's a fascinating question," says Alan Wolfe, director of Boston College's Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. ''Catholics like to talk about anti-Catholicism and Jews like to complain about anti-Semitism. But a hundred years ago, Mormonism was the most hated religion in America. Since then the religion has changed dramatically. It's almost like a new business taking off -- it's a quintessential American success story."

Wolfe thinks that if Romney's ambitions take him to the 2008 Republican primaries, he's likely to be slimed by political operatives of the Karl Rove mold. ''I think there will be rumors spread about how Mitt Romney has six wives, all of them 14 years of age, stashed in a house in Utah. These rumors will be denied, but they will stick in people's minds. There is some subterranean sentiment about curious practices in Mormonism."

I agree with Wolfe, but I think it's not just Republicans who are sharpening their knives for a Romney run. Democrats gleefully smeared Romney when he ran for the Senate against Edward Kennedy in 1994. Capitalizing on Romney's leadership roles in the church -- he was president of 14 Boston-area congregations -- the media trotted out a succession of accusers, some anonymous, who asserted that Romney and the Mormons were antiabortion, anti-single mother, and anti-gay. Of course, those comments could be made about almost any mainstream faith in the United States.

Kennedy's nephew Joseph, then a congressman, gave a speech asserting that the Mormon faith excluded blacks, which it does not. Little Joe then apologized publicly, ensuring that the allegations played through a second news cycle. When Romney ran for governor three years ago, Democrats were less eager to play the religion card. Their candidate, Shannon O'Brien, was Catholic, and that church was embroiled in a national sex-abuse scandal.

So what can Romney expect now, as he dips his toe into the presidential waters? No one is going to trash his religion unless they have to, meaning unless his candidacy shows signs of success. But I've already been pitched on a quirky column item about the funny garments Mormons wear while worshiping. How tasteful. Maybe I can make fun of Hasidic Jews' curly forelocks and the pope's curious headgear while I'm at it.

Another consultant with ties to the Democrats suggested that I address a more substantive question, raised by Harvard Business School dean Kim Clark's recent decision to leave HBS for the presidency of Brigham Young University-Idaho. In May, Clark, who is Mormon, received a call from his church's president asking him to leave Harvard and head for Idaho.

So would Romney likewise feel obliged to follow the dictates of the church's president, whom Mormons believe to be a divinely inspired prophet? John F. Kennedy faced this same question concerning his loyalty to Catholicism during the 1960 election, and addressed it in a famous speech to Protestant ministers in Houston. ''I am not the Catholic candidate for president," Kennedy said. ''I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic . . . I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me."

Romney's spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom says the governor's ''first obligation is to fulfill his duty of office, and that would take precedence over anything. If he were to get a Kim Clark-like call, he would not react in the same way. This is a governor who has signed a law permitting Sunday alcohol sales, and who has been open to an expansion of gaming. [Observant Mormons do not smoke, gamble, or drink spirits.] This is by no means someone who is marching in lockstep with his church."