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Published: Thursday, 8/30/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Romney has chance to define his religion

Mormon faith to be on display in speech

BY TRACIE MAURIELLO
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

TAMPA -- Mitt Romney: a man of deep religious convictions who happens to be running for president, or a man running for president who happens to have deep religious convictions?

No one has defined him in religious terms, so now it's up to Mr. Romney himself to write his narrative. He'll do that late today with help from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who are expected to show the compassionate side of the Massachusetts businessman and former governor who wants to lead the nation.

The question is, will he portray himself as a compassionate Mormon church leader or as a conservative ideologue with policies rooted in faith?

Voters could find out when he accepts the Republican presidential nomination in a speech that could be a defining moment of the campaign.

So far, Mr. Romney has largely avoided talking about his Mormonism. But when he accepts the party nomination, he will put his faith on display: his missionary work in France, his philanthropy, and his decade as a lay bishop. His reluctance to discuss it could stem from sentiment that Mormonism is a cult. Founded by Joseph Smith in 1820, it's a relatively young religion with few adherents compared to other denominations.

Robert Gleason, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said most voters aren't bothered by Mr. Romney's Mormonism.

"The glass has been broken on it as far as people saying it's a cult and different things. I don't think anybody believes that anymore. It's absolutely not a problem," Mr. Gleason said. "I feel a candidate should be who they are. We can all see through if they try to be something else, can't we?"

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Mr. Romney's faith guides his life and forms the basis of his positions on health care, reproductive rights, gay marriage, and welfare reform. To ignore it would be leaving out the core values that make him who he is as a leader and as a man.

Academics who study religion and politics will be watching to see whether he embraces his Mormonism the way President Kennedy embraced his Catholicism.

"There's been a lot of debate in Republican circles on whether or not he should make a big deal about it … or treat it as incidental," said Gaston Espinosa, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California and the author of the book Religion, Race and Barack Obama's New Democratic Pluralism.

Mr. Romney might do well to take a page from the incumbent's 2008 playbook, Mr. Espinosa suggested. That means referring to himself as a Christian instead of as a Mormon.

"Seventy-eight to 82 percent of the electorate is Christian, so you get more bang for your buck if you focus on your Christian identity at the broadest possible level," Mr. Espinosa said.

But with only 1.7 percent of the population identifying as Mormon -- and most of those concentrated in Utah and Nevada -- voters are so skeptical of the denomination that some consider it a cult and others think the church condones polygamy, which mostly ended a century ago.

"There's a significant portion of American Christians who have long been skeptical of Mormonism, and we saw that skepticism on display during the Republican primaries, and it hasn't gone away," said John Green, University of Akron political scientist.

While Christian Republicans aren't likely to vote for Mr. Obama, neither are they likely to mobilize for a candidate whose religion is unfamiliar to them, he said.

But Mr. Espinosa said religion isn't as important to voters as it was in the past.

"You had a Republican Mormon elected governor of the liberal state of Massachusetts, so let's think about that. … If I told you that would have happened, everybody would have laughed about it," he said. "I don't think that [Mormonism] hurts him except with the most extreme elements in religious society, and most of those folks aren't going to vote anyway. …"

It could be a mistake for Mr. Romney to keep quiet about his religion, he said.

"If he runs as a secular moderate, he's going to have some problems because you don't want to be more secular than a Democrat," he said.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Tracie Mauriello is Washington bureau chief for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Tracie Mauriello at: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, or 703-996-9292.



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