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Will Christians back a Mormon candidate?

As a clean-living, church-going father and grandfather, Gov. Mitt Romney has a natural appeal among conservative Christians.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gestures while speaking to a Republican Women's club in Concord, N.H. in this March 18, 2006 file photo.Jim Cole / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As a clean-living, church-going father and grandfather, Gov. Mitt Romney has a natural appeal among conservative Christians.

The Massachusetts Republican, though, faces a delicate dilemma: How does a devout Mormon woo religious activists critical to winning the GOP presidential nomination when many of those same activists are openly hostile to a faith they consider no more than cult?

For his all-but-announced presidential bid to succeed, Romney must win primary votes across the Bible Belt from people whose churches have a historical antagonism with his own Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Pragmatic America?
"The rhetoric between evangelicals and Mormons has been almost abusive," said Richard Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in California, the largest evangelical seminary in North America.

Romney also will angle for support from millions of Americans whose own preachers have criticized past Mormon practices such as polygamy, as well as the Mormons' refusal to allow black priests until 1978.

Yet he just may be able to overcome those concerns because of two things: his family-oriented lifestyle, and a primary campaign that could pit him against rivals like Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Not only have both of them have been divorced, but Giuliani harbors liberal social views antithetical to many evangelicals, and McCain has clashed in very public fashion in the past with the religious right.

"Most Americans are pragmatists. There will be a fraction of evangelical Protestants who will be vociferous in their opposition to Romney, but depending on who the other candidates are, that could be a very small fraction," said Mark Noll, an evangelical expert who teaches American religious history at Notre Dame.

Looking ahead to the 2008 general election, Mouw was more direct: "If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic candidate and Mitt Romney is the Republican candidate, my guess is that evangelicals will take a deep breath and pull the lever for Mitt Romney."

Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, ran for president in 1968. Yet questions about his faith were short-circuited when his campaign ended after he said he had been subjected to "a brainwashing" by U.S. generals during a visit to Vietnam.

Staking out a potential candidacy
The 59-year-old Mitt Romney, a former venture capitalist wrapping up his one and only term in elective office, is expected to announce his candidacy early next month. He has cultivated a national network of financial supporters, including many in his own church, and his success in establishing the nation's first universal health plan in Massachusetts should make him a credible candidate.

While other Mormons have held positions of political power, including Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, none has ever been elected president. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, also a Mormon, sought the GOP nomination in 2000, but was quickly eliminated from the race. The possibility of a Mormon president has renewed questions about whether the public in general - and evangelicals in particular - would support a candidate from a faith that the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant group, considers a cult.

Romney and gay rights
The domination of early Republican primaries and caucuses by social conservatives - generally defined as churchgoers who oppose abortion rights and gay marriage - may explain why Romney has been aggressively recasting himself as a conservative after presenting himself as a moderate while running for governor in 2002.

His challenge was underscored earlier this month when some conservatives questioned the validity of his credentials after learning of a 1994 letter in which Romney - then a candidate for the U.S. Senate - pledged to be more effective in promoting the gay agenda than Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. Kennedy is considered by many on the right to be the most liberal member of Congress.

In his gubernatorial campaign, Romney also pledged to uphold abortion rights in Massachusetts. Today, he says the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion is wrong.

Religious concerns
Yet the theology of his religion bodes to be particularly problematic for his presidential candidacy, at least at the outset, experts say.

The Book of Mormon, which church founder Joseph Smith Jr. said he translated from golden plates he discovered through an angel in the 1820s, says that Israelites migrated to the New World and were the ancestors of American Indians. Latter-day Saints also believe that Smith restored authentic Christianity and rewrote parts of the Bible to correct it.

Another Mormon rule that frequently raises eyebrows is the bar on access to their temples by anyone except members of the faith who donate 10 percent of their earnings to the church, who uphold its teachings and who fulfill other duties. Mormons who meet the criteria are given ID cards that they must display to gain admittance.

"There will be some initial apprehension from many conservative Christians who have been taught that Mormonism is a cult," said Rev. Joel Hunter, pastor of the Northland Church in Longwood, Fla.

"As people become more educated, they will think more broadly than what the differences are," Hunter said. "If he stands for what many conservative Christians stand for in terms of pro-life, pro-marriage between one man and one woman, they will become more comfortable."

Family man
In contrast to some of his rivals, Romney has been married for 37 years to his wife, Ann. His Christmas card shows his five beaming sons, their wives and his nine grandchildren. He neither drinks nor smokes, and even shuns coffee. On occasions when others might swear, he talks about how "bloomin'" mad he is.

Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics Commission, said he doesn't see Romney's Mormon faith as an insurmountable problem.

"I think his Mormonism is going to be a bigger problem with the 'unchurched' than the 'churched,'" Land said. "The unchurched are fairly distrustful of and sometimes hostile of the churched, and they look upon Mormons as, sort of, religion on steroids. The churched respect people who take their faith seriously."