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Crucial test for Romney in speech on religion

Mitt Romney’s planned speech today at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas to confront suspicions about his Mormon faith is being viewed as the biggest moment of his presidential campaign.
/ Source: The New York Times

Mitt Romney’s planned speech today at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas to confront suspicions about his Mormon faith is being viewed as the biggest moment of his presidential campaign.

With surveys showing many Americans less likely to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, the address has drawn comparisons to John F. Kennedy’s call for religious tolerance when, as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1960, he sought to defuse hostility about his Roman Catholic faith before Southern Baptist ministers in Houston.

Kennedy’s task was in many ways easier, given that 42 million Americans were Roman Catholic then, compared with an estimated six million Mormons nationwide today, just 2 percent of the population.

Not 'Mormon 101'
Mr. Romney and his advisers have made clear that he will not be explaining his faith, or doing “Mormon 101,” as one top adviser put it, in his speech.

But some scholars and evangelical Christians, who make up a crucial voting bloc in the Republican Party and consider Mormonism to be heretical, say that many voters would like to hear more from Mr. Romney about exactly what he believes, even though he has studiously avoided discussing this except in the broadest terms.

“Most people don’t have a clear understanding of the faith,” said Tamara Scott, executive director of the Iowa chapter of Concerned Women for America, a Christian conservative group. “Really what they would like is maybe a little more explanation.”

Ms. Scott said she was uncertain about what might be accomplished “if he’s not going to express the tenets of his faith.”

The address comes as the religious divide his supporters long feared appears to be emerging in Iowa, where Mr. Romney has seen his lead in the polls evaporate in the face of a vigorous challenge by Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor whose rise has been driven by evangelicals. In recent days, Mr. Huckabee has refused to say whether he believes Mormons are Christians.

Mr. Romney’s advisers say that in his address he will emphasize religious liberty and his embrace of the shared values that make up the country’s common moral heritage, and that he will make a case for the robust role for faith in public life, a marked departure from Kennedy’s speech.

In choosing not to directly address misconceptions about Mormonism, Mr. Romney and his advisers assert that he is not a spokesman for his church and that theological matters have no bearing on what he would do as president. They are also concerned that addressing even basic questions will lead into a rabbit warren of others about Mormon beliefs.

When Mr. Romney was asked during an interview in October on CBS News about the teaching by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, Mr. Romney said church officials were the ones who should answer such questions.

'Founded on Judeo-Christian principles'
“You know, they’re probably the right folks to give you the answers to questions related to a bunch of Mormon teachings,” he said. “So I’ll probably let them respond to questions about specific doctrines. But what I can tell you is that the values of my faith are founded on Judeo-Christian principles.”

Mr. Romney has similarly batted away questions about polygamy in his church’s history, a practice that was disavowed by the church more than a century ago, and the barring of blacks from full rights of membership in the church until 1978.

Joseph Smith founded Mormonism in the 19th century as a restoration of what he considered to be the true Christian church. Among the major differences with traditional Christianity, Mormons do not believe in the concept of the unified Trinity; the Book of Mormon is considered sacred text, alongside the Bible; and Mormons believe that God has a physical body and that human beings can eventually become like God.

Mr. Romney’s dilemma, said Jan B. Shipps, a prominent non-Mormon historian of the church, is that Mormonism is very complicated. It can sound elegant when the tenets are taken together, Ms. Shipps said, but bizarre when considered in parts.

“Mormonism is a really complex theological system,” Ms. Shipps said. “All its parts fit together beautifully. But if you just know a little bit about one of them, or part of them, it seems weird.”

Mr. Romney faces concerns similar to Kennedy’s about the influence of his church’s leaders over his decision-making, so his advisers say he will address the separation of church and state, just as Kennedy did.

At the same time, he cannot do what Kennedy did when he argued that his religion was a private affair, said Richard N. Ostling, the author of “Mormon America: The Power and the Promise” (HarperCollins, 2000), because many conservative Christians want to see politicians drawing on their faith.

“He has to present himself as a person of faith,” Mr. Ostling said. “But he has to say he is not controlled by or is subservient to the authorities of his religion.”

Highlighting Mr. Romney’s challenge, Vanderbilt University announced the results this week of a study that examined bias against Mormons and tested various strategies for combating it. The survey concluded that specific information to dispel erroneous perceptions, like that the church still condones polygamy, was far more effective than simply calling for religious tolerance.

“It turns out, the tolerance message doesn’t help,” said John Geer, a Vanderbilt political science professor who took part in the study. “What counters this bias is actual information demystifying it.”