Presidential hopeful Willard “Mitt” Romney’s affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) may prove to be a thorn in his side come the 2008 election.
To pitch himself as the ideal conservative he has flip-flopped on every major social and political issue to align himself closer with the evangelical Christian spectrum of politics than other candidates for the Republican nomination. His stance on Iraq, gay marriage, CEO salaries and abortion are like sweet music in the religious-right’s ears, yet the evangelicals are not willing to accept a Mormon as one of their own in the GOP. He just doesn’t have the snuff to be 700 Club cast material. He has even tried to fraternize with the Southern Baptist high command in his own kitchen; but nibbling croissants and idle chitchat with Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham about their mutual “savior” hasn’t won him any favor with the Christian mob so far.
Unfortunately for Romney, his faith holds an abysmal reputation with right-wing Christian churches; many churches regard Mormonism as a heretical cult with a sinister political agenda. Excluding entrenched religious prejudices, some Mormon skepticism exists as a wobbly bias based on hearsay and weird rumors about magical underwear and polygamy. Evangelical leaders say that Mormonism presents a different threat than Judaism or Catholicism, faiths previously stigmatized in early politics. They are now widely accepted and practiced by many members of Congress. Some alleged that a Mormon as President would operate under prophetical revelation many evangelicals see as “realistic deception[s] of the Devil himself,” thus putting evangelical Christianity in jeopardy. Extra-biblical scriptures endorsed by the LDS Church along with “living” Prophets and Apostles are considered in the evangelical community as outright blasphemy.
Romney’s Mormonism hasn’t killed his campaign or his optimism since he declared his candidacy, but he won’t be able to keep silent about it forever. Placating the evangelical fan-base, a battleground-voting bloc that comprises over 37 percent of the republican electorate will be his only hope of a fighting chance for the Oval Office. Even if other candidates take the high road and ignore the faith issue, Romney’s religion dilemma will still be touted and gossiped in churches. He hopes voters will concentrate on his family-friendly values and success as a venture capitalist, and that the religion issue will be immaterial as the race wears on. His campaign Web site mentions nothing about his faith other than the line “Mitt and Ann (his wife) are active in their church” buried in his biography page, so he does realize his religion is a sticky issue.
Recent public opinion surveys show that Americans are jittery about voting for a well-qualified Mormon. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey conducted last December showed that about 53 percent of participating voters had either strong reservations or were downright uncomfortable when it came to voting for a Mormon. A similar survey conducted by CBS revealed that only 25 percent of registered voters had a favorable opinion of Mormonism, while 30 percent viewed it unfavorably and 39 percent of respondents knew little of Mormonism at all. The only religion in the poll viewed more unfavorably than Mormonism was Islam. In the same survey, percentages of voters willing to elect a woman or black candidate were in the mid-80s range, significantly higher than any other group mentioned.
Despite pessimistic poll numbers, Romney is also faced with the same barrier JFK met in regards to people’s fears of being a papal agent in the Oval Office. Like Kennedy, Romney is suspected among some critics of being a potential instrument of the LDS Church’s First Presidency if he were to win the 2008 election. Murmurs of Romney being “groomed” by LDS leadership for years have been raised by some critics, fearing that Romney as President would infect policy-making with LDS dogma. More suspicion was galvanized when The Boston Globe published an article in October about leaked documents evidencing direct collusion with LDS Church leadership. Globe reported Romney and officers of his campaign met with Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City to discuss building a nationwide grassroots movement to rally support for the Romney camp. BYU and Marriott School alumni would manage the operation over their private phones and e-mail so the Church and schools may keep their tax-exempt status.
Will Romney be able to balance his time between real political events and continually explaining questionable tenets of his faith to wary voters, and still operate a successful campaign? He seems to think he can.