It was only a few seconds, but at Tuesday night’s debate, Republican presidential hopeful (and Mormon) Mitt Romney gave some of his most extensive religious comments yet of the 2012 presidential campaign, saying, “That idea that we should choose people based on their religion is the one that I find to be most troubling.”
After Gov. Rick Perry said that he did not agree with comments by his fellow Texan, pastor Robert Jeffress, that Mormonism is a cult, Romney responded with a case for a secular approach to the nation’s highest office:
“The founders of this country went to great length to make sure and even put in the Constitution, that we would not choose people who represent us in government based on their religion. That this would be a nation that recognizes and respected other faiths. That there’s a plurality of faiths, where there was tolerance of other faiths. That’s bedrock principle.. . . The concept that we select people based on the church or the synagogue they go to [backed by Jeffress], I think is a very dangerous and enormous departure from the principles of our Constitution.”
But despite the unconstitutionality of the government applying a religious test for public office, many Americans are clearly wrestling with their understanding of Romney and his Mormon faith.
A new Washington Post/ Pew poll asked for “single-word descriptions” of a number of GOP candidates, and for Romney, the word that dominated was “Mormon.” The poll was conducted from Oct 13-16, in the wake of widely covered comments by Jeffress, who declared that Mormons are not Christians at the Values Voter Summit.
Will the close association between Romney and his faith help or hurt him with voters? The answer may lie in two factors --how Americans perceive Mormons, and whether or not prominent Christian leaders convince their congregations that it is not acceptable for them to vote for a Mormon candidate.
So what do Americans think about Mormons? During Romney’s previous presidential bid, the Pew Forum conducted nuanced research into American attitudes on the Latter-day Saints and found that 53 percent reported having a favorable impression of the faith — the same percentage that said they had a favorable opinion of Muslim Americans. When that same survey asked for one-word impressions of Mormonism, ”polygamy or bigamy” were the most popular mentions, followed by “family or family values,” “cult,” “different” and “dedicated,” a mixed bag of positive and negative associations for any candidate.
While Romney has avoided confrontation when challenged to speak about perceptions of his faith, he may find it impossible to avoid. Even at this stage of the campaign, a number of prominent Christian leaders have raised questions about the permissibility of voting for a Mormon candidate.
Jeffress wrote Wednesday in an op-ed for The Washington Post that the faith of a president matters to religious people. “During this firestorm I’ve reignited over the role of religion in politics, some have quoted Martin Luther as saying he would rather be governed by a competent unbeliever than an incompetent Christian. Yet evangelicals should remember that the purpose of the primary process is to keep us from having to make such a choice. At this point we have the opportunity to select both a competent leader and a committed Christian.” In other words, not Mitt Romney.
And before Jeffress was bestowing his blessing upon Rick Perry, Warren Cole Smith, associate publisher of the conservative Christian publication World Magazine, wrote an essay for Patheos.com that encouraged Christians to believe that “A vote for Romney is a vote for the LDS church.” “Placing a Mormon in that pulpit [the presidency] would be a source of pride and a shot of adrenaline for the LDS church.” Smith wrote. “It would serve to normalize the false teachings of Mormonism the world over...To elect a Mormon president is to advance the cause of the Mormon Church.” Romney’s faith, Smith added, “disqualifies him from my vote,” adding “We make him our president at great peril to the intellectual and spiritual health of our nation.”(You can read Mormon leader Mike Otterson’s response to Smith here.)
In a column published at On Faith this week, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler asked, “Can a faithful Christian vote for a Mormon candidate?”After exploring some Mormon theology, Mohler concluded “Mormonism is not Christianity,” but left the answer open to his own question about voting for an LDS candidate, concluding “These questions will call for our most careful, biblical, and faithful thinking. We need to start thinking urgently — long before we enter the voting booth.”
From Driscoll’s post:
“As the presidential race heats up and the prospect of a practicing Mormon as a viable Republican candidate becomes more a reality, there will be continued effort to bring Mormonism into the center of Christian orthodoxy...
“ As Mormonism becomes more culturally acceptable, the temptation will be to make Mormonism more acceptable to Christians as well. This can’t happen if the Church is to preserve it’s witness in the world to the true triune God of the Bible as worshipped by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians alike.”
No word from Driscoll yet on whether this means Christians are advancing the cause of Mormonism by voting for one.
Still, Jeffress, Smith, Mohler and Driscoll stand out precisely because so few Christian leaders have raised public questions about voting for a Mormon candidate. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land last week said that he, and many conservative evangelicals, including Jeffress, would back Romney in the general election.
In fact, Jeffress himself said that if the 2012 election ends up as a choice between Obama and Romney, he’d vote for Mormon Mitt Romney over Christian Barack Obama.