Tuesday’s formal announcement by Mitt Romney that he is running for president pushes what has been termed the “Mormon question” front and center.
The former governor of Massachusetts, Romney is viewed as a leading candidate for the GOP nomination in 2008. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of his biggest challenges is courting evangelical voters, who strongly supported George W. Bush in the last election.
On Wednesday, Pat Robertson-founded Regent University announced Romney will give the school’s commencement address May 5. According to media reports, Romney is planning a private reception for Christian radio and television hosts during the National Religious Broadcasters’ annual meeting next week in Orlando, Fla.
There he hopes to win over powerful kingmakers like Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who said on the radio last year he doesn’t believe Christian conservatives will vote in large numbers for a Mormon.
The American Family Association’s Agape Press on Thursday quoted a Southern Baptist Convention official linking Romney’s candidacy to resources his denomination offers that “teach the truth about Mormonism.”
“Our concern is that they don’t really know the God of the Bible,” Rob Bowman of the SBC North American Mission Board said of Mormon people. “So we’re concerned for their salvation.”
NAMB resources include “The Mormon Puzzle,” a video produced in 1997 contrasting Mormon beliefs with what Southern Baptists view as biblical Christianity. A bulletin outlining Mormon teachings is categorized under “Cults and Sects.”
When the SBC met in Salt Lake City in 1998, in view of the LDS Temple Square, messengers used the occasion to adopt a resolution affirming the “exclusivity of the Christian gospel and biblical revelation as the sole source of saving truth”–in contrast to Mormon Christology and reliance on extra-biblical scriptures including the Book of Mormon.
Romney confronted the stigma of his faith tradition head on, inviting about a dozen evangelical leaders to his home last fall. They included Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, Gary Bauer and Richard Land.
Land, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has been quoted as saying he thinks Romney will face a bigger problem with the unchurched than with people of faith.
“Governor Romney’s being a Mormon shouldn’t be a deal breaker for most people of faith,” Land told the Austin American-Statesman. “After all, we’re electing a commander-in-chief, not a theologian-in-chief.”
Land believes all Romney needs to do is give a speech explaining his beliefs and what impact they might have on his leadership, similar to one delivered during the 1960 presidential campaign by John F. Kennedy to allay fears about his being a Catholic.
Others aren’t so sure.
“I would hope most people in the Christian conservative movement are mature enough in their politics not to just write him off because he’s a Mormon,” Vision America founder Rick Scarborough told the Dallas Morning News. “But I do think that gives a lot of people pause.”
Polls show anywhere from a fourth to a third Americans say they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon for president, similar to the percentage stacked against Kennedy before he became the first Catholic president.
Romney also must explain his reversal on social issues like abortion rights and gay marriage, which he formerly supported but now opposes. He insists the flip-flop was based on conviction and not political expediency.
Romney is not the first Mormon to run for president. The last was Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who ran unsuccessfully in 2000. The highest-ranking Mormon currently in government is Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, Democratic majority leader and the top-ranking Mormon in the history of Congress.
Former Oklahoma congressman Ernest Istook, a darling of the Religious Right for his efforts to restore school prayer and defend marriage, was raised as a Southern Baptist but now is a member of the Mormon Church.
Romney has said he doesn’t think the specifics of his faith are as important to conservative Christian voters as the strengths of his convictions.
“I think Americans want people of faith to lead their country,” he said on Pat Roberton’s CBN network. “Generally they don’t care so much about the particular brand of faith, if the people that they’re looking at have the same values they have. And people of my faith have the values of other great religions that are represented here in this country.”
Romney’s wife recently told ABC that she and her husband “do believe that Jesus Christ is our personal savior.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.