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Can a Mormon be president?

Romney must erase electorate's worries on his faith for '08 bid

By Lisa Anderson

Tribune national correspondent


December 17, 2006


SALT LAKE CITY -- The 2008 race for the White House is under way and the question already is in debate: Can a Mormon be elected president of the United States?


In a country where the majority of voters tell pollsters that a president should have strong religious beliefs, potential GOP candidate Mitt Romney may soon find out whether that equally applies to a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


Laying the groundwork for a campaign expected to be announced early next year and considered in the top tier of Republican hopefuls, the departing Massachusetts governor boasts an extensive business background, rescued the deficit-ridden 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and, at 59, cuts a distinguished figure. But Romney faces a challenge encountered by few prior candidates: convincing evangelical Christians, a key GOP bloc, that Mormons are Christians, not heretics.


"Certainly the majority of evangelicals still view Mormonism as a cult. It's the evangelicals who are going to make up the bulk of the party activists in the primaries," said Philip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University in Indianapolis.


That is particularly true in Southern primary states such as South Carolina. Romney has held meetings with evangelical leaders there in recent months, as well as at his Massachusetts home, where questions about his beliefs and how they should be presented were discussed.


"What I told him in the meeting is, `Governor, this is the elephant in the room that no one's talking about,'" said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, who met with Romney in October in Belmont, Mass.


Land said he thought Southern Baptists would look beyond religious differences to shared values, taking the position that "we are voting for a commander in chief, not a pastor in chief."


However, Land and other conservative Christian leaders recently expressed concern over statements made by Romney, now firmly anti-abortion and anti-same-sex marriage, in support of abortion rights and equal rights for gays and lesbians during his failed 1994 run for the U.S. Senate.


Politically neutral


In political matters, the Mormon Church is adamantly neutral, bars use of its churches by candidates and gives no access to its membership lists, said Michael Otterson, head of media relations for the church. "The church's mission is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians."


Aware that if Romney runs the Mormon Church will come under more scrutiny, Otterson said church staff is taking measures to ensure an accurate portrayal of the church, including briefings for reporters.


In an overwhelmingly Christian nation, the country's near 6 million Mormons, who make up about 2 percent of the population, are a minority faith. And, concentrated in the Mountain West, they are a mystery to many Americans, particularly regarding polygamy.


"Mormons in the media, in general, have gotten a bit of a bum rap," said Mitch Davis, a Mormon screenwriter and director, who last July founded RunMittRun.org, a political organization devoted to dispelling misinformation about Mormons and backing Romney's campaign.


"If you look at motion pictures that have included Mormon characters, they generally fall into three categories: the hayseed Mormon . . . the polygamist wacko Mormon and then there's what I call the Stepford Mormon, which is the Mormon unable to think for him or herself. What you don't see are mainstream Mormons, which is mostly what Mormons are," the San Diego-based Davis said.


Although the Mormon Church banned polygamy in 1890, a September Gallup Poll found that about 26 percent of Americans believe most Mormons favor the practice of men having multiple wives. That perception may have deepened with publicity surrounding the arrest and rape trial of Warren Jeffs, the polygamous leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a splinter group denounced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The HBO series "Big Love" presents another renegade sect of polygamous Mormons as white-bread, SUV-driving suburbanites.


According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Friday, 53 percent of adults said they would have "some reservations" or be "very uncomfortable" about a Mormon presidential candidate. On Thursday, a Washington Post-ABC News poll reported that 35 percent of adults said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon. A Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll, also released Thursday, found that 14 percent of registered voters would not vote for a Mormon.


A doctrinal problem


John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, said he thought those anti-Mormon numbers seemed high and went against the trend toward religious tolerance among Americans. However, he noted that relatively few polls have been done on Mormon candidates.


In a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll of registered voters released Dec. 7, some 28 percent of evangelical Christians said Romney's faith would make them less likely to vote for him.


The problem for evangelicals and other conservative Christians is doctrinal. Mormon theology diverges on a number of points from mainstream Protestant and Catholic denominations. The 179-year-old Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints considers itself the restoration of the original church Christ founded on Earth, which became degraded. Also troubling to evangelicals is that, in addition to the Bible, the Mormon Church considers the Book of Mormon a further testament of Jesus Christ as revealed to Mormon founder Joseph Smith.


Religion was not a major factor in Romney's unsuccessful 1994 bid to unseat Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) or in his successful 2002 campaign to govern the Catholic and blue Bay State.


Nor did it figure much in the 1968 presidential bid by Romney's father, the late George Romney, governor of Michigan. But national politics are not the same as those in Massachusetts, and evangelical Christians in 1968 were not the political force in the GOP they are today, said Pew's Green.


The last time Mormonism played a role in a presidential campaign was in 2000, when Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said ignorance about the faith contributed to his losing bid for the Republican nomination.


Successful or not, a Romney campaign "could be a watershed moment in the same way as Alfred Smith running as the first Catholic in 1928," said Indiana University's Goff. "He can do a great deal to define what a Mormon is to people who likely don't know one. That's what Alfred E. Smith did for Catholics."


He paved the way for John F. Kennedy, who confronted suspicions about Catholicism in an address to Southern Baptist leaders in Houston, and won the 1960 election two months later.


- - -


Many non-Protestants have run, only one has won




For the Democratic (D) and Republican (R) parties, since 1960, with year of election


Year: 1960


Candidate, religion: John F. Kennedy (D), Catholic


Outcome: Massachusetts senator defeated Richard Nixon in the general election, becoming the only non-Protestant U.S. president to date.


Year: 1968


Candidate, religion: Robert Kennedy (D), Catholic


Outcome: Late president's younger brother was assassinated in Los Angeles midway through the campaign.


Candidate, religion: Eugene McCarthy (D), Catholic


Outcome: Minnesota senator narrowly lost the New Hampshire primary to President Lyndon Johnson, who later quit the race. McCarthy ultimately lost the nomination to Hubert Humphrey.


Candidate, religion: George Romney (R), Mormon


Outcome: Mitt Romney's father, then governor of Michigan, quit the race for the GOP nomination after a gaffe in which he said his support for the Vietnam War was due to "brainwashing" by the military.


Year: 1972


Candidate, religion: Edmund Muskie (D), Catholic


Outcome: Maine senator was an early favorite for the Democratic nod but lost to eventual nominee George McGovern.


Year: 1976


Candidate, religion: Milton Shapp (D), Jewish


Outcome: Pennslyvania governor's campaign lasted just 89 days before he dropped out.


Candidate, religion: Morris Udall (D), Mormon


Outcome: Arizona congressman fi nished second to eventual nominee and President Jimmy Carter.


Year: 1980


Candidate, religion: Edward Kennedy (D), Catholic


Outcome: Massachusetts senator lost the Democratic nomination to incumbent Carter.


Year: 1988


Candidate, religion: Michael Dukakis (D), Greek Orthodox


Outcome: Massachusetts governor won his party's nomination but lost the general election to George H.W. Bush.


Years: 1992, 1996


Candidate, religion: Pat Buchanan (R), Catholic


Outcome: Conservative commentator took second in the New Hampshire primary in 1992 and won it four years later, but both times fell short of the nomination.


Year: 1996


Candidate, religion: Arlen Specter (R), Jewish


Outcome: Pennsylvania senator's campaign was over before the first primary as he failed to raise enough cash to keep it going.


Year: 2000


Candidate, religion: Orrin Hatch (R), Mormon


Utah senator bowed out after finishing last in the Iowa caucuses.


Year: 2004


Candidate, religion: Wesley Clark (D), Catholic


Outcome: Former four-star general ended his campaign by mid-February.


Candidate, religion: John Kerry (D), Catholic


Outcome: Massachusetts senator won his party's nomination but lost the general election to President Bush.


Candidate, religion: Dennis Kucinich (D), Catholic


Outcome: Ohio congressman was a non-factor in the campaign.


Candidate, religion: Joe Lieberman (D), Jewish


Outcome: Connecticut senator was out of the race by early February.


Note: In 2000 Pat Buchanan ran for president on the Reform Party ticket. Sources: Tribune archives, Project VoteSmart, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, news reports


Chicago Tribune/Adam Zoll





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