Romney may put his faith on display at GOP convention
The Clearwater Christian College Cantorum performs on Sunday for the Faith and Freedom Coalition event in Tampa.
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TAMPA, Fla. -- 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 own narrative. He'll do that tonight 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 politician who wants to lead the nation.
The question is whether he will portray himself as a compassionate Mormon church leader or as a conservative ideologue with policies rooted in faith.
Voters could find out tonight 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 except when pressed. But on the night he accepts the party nomination, he also 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 public sentiment that Mormonism is a secretive 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 say it's a cult and different things. I don't think anybody believes that anymore. It's absolutely not a problem," said Mr. Gleason, former head of Pennsylvania Catholics for Bush. "I feel a candidate should be who they are. We can all see through if they try to be something else, can't we?"
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 the former Massachusetts governor 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 John F. 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 just-published 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 member of the Mormon denomination.
In Mr. Obama's first campaign, he billed himself as a person of faith and genuine conviction, not as a member of the United Church of Christ. Although half the voting population share his faith, he was able to appeal to a broader audience by using the word Christian instead of Protestant. (He was able to make some inroads with conservative voters, but that's changed since he came out in favor of gay marriage, said Mr. Espinosa, who said it's now very difficult for Mr. Obama to get any traction with conservative Christians.)
"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 in a telephone interview.
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 erroneously believe the church still condones polygamy, a practice that 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," University of Akron political scientist John Green said in a recent telephone interview.
While Christian Republicans aren't likely to vote for Mr. Obama, neither are they likely to work hard to mobilize support 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 for a minute. If I told you that would have happened, everybody would have laughed about it," he said. 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," Mr. Espinosa said.
Religion isn't the overriding concern of Americans still struggling after years of recession, but it could make a difference if the race is as close as polls predict.
Several Republican delegates interviewed this week in Tampa said Mr. Romney's Mormonism is a non-issue.
"I haven't heard anybody complain about his religion. They just don't care about it," said delegate Jo Rainbolt, a church secretary in Claremont, Okla.
It is important for a candidate to have a religion, but which one doesn't much matter, she said.
"To believe in God and have moral values, you need that," she said. "If you don't have a moral compass who knows where that's going to leave us."
More critical to most voters than Mr. Romney's Mormonism will be his stands on issues of importance to them.
The health care debate has a strong religious undercurrent running through discussions of both reproductive rights and society's responsibility to provide for its poorest members.
Those issues and more were highlighted here Sunday during a well-attended evangelical gathering aimed at firing up the religious right as Republican delegates arrived in town.
"Abortion on demand ... is the most extreme position in America today and it's held by the Democratic Party," said former presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi also addressed the crowd, who welcomed her with wild applause. "This fight we're taking on is not just about the Catholic church or any particular religious denomination. It is about whether government can force people of faith -- any faith -- to violate their conscience," she said.
Mr. Romney, who has been in accord with the conservative Republican line on social issues including abortion and gay marriage, has so far campaigned as if allegiance to those stances is indeed more important than the denomination to which he has dedicated much of his energy over his lifetime.
Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential hopeful, underscored that point in his speech Wednesday night at the convention: "I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church than I do about where he takes this country."
First Published August 30, 2012 12:16 am