Is Mitt Romney’s Mormonism fair game?

Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has developed a simple method to determine whether coverage of the candidate’s Mormonism has crossed a line.

“Our test to see if a similar story would be written about others’ religion is to substitute ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish,’ ” Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul wrote in objection to a Washington Post article last fall about the candidate’s role as a church leader in Boston.

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She pointed out a passage that explained a central tenet of Mormonism. It described the belief that Christ’s true church was restored after centuries of apostasy when the 19th-century prophet Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates that he discovered in Upstate New York.

“Would you write this sentence in describing the Jewish faith?” Saul asked in a November e-mail, adding: “ ‘Jews believe their prophet Moses was delivered tablets on a mountain top directly from G-d after he appeared to him in a burning bush.’ Of course not, yet you reference a similar story in Mormonism.”

The outrage on behalf of the first Mormon candidate to represent a major party in a presidential election is not unique. Recently, Jodi Kantor reported in the New York Times that Romney’s aides often ask reporters, “Would you have written this about a Jewish candidate?” The guilt trip may be motivated by political calculation, sincere concern about religious bigotry for a faith that has suffered its fair share or some combination of the two. Regardless of its impetus, the campaign’s response gets at a crucial challenge for the news media: to educate the public about an unfamiliar faith unusually central to a candidate’s formation without treating Mormonism as biographical exotica that could fuel prejudices.

Now that Romney has secured the necessary delegates to become the Republican nominee, that challenge is front and center. Obama strategist David Axelrod has suggested that Mormonism is off limits as political ammunition. Yet news outlets delve into Mormon apocrypha, and comedian and Democratic super PAC donor Bill Maher launches salvo after salvo against Romney’s faith.

“It’s a tough line,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the first Jewish nominee for national office, who has written sympathetically about Romney’s candidacy through the prism of religious freedom. While he allowed that the public can benefit from learning more about a candidate’s religion, Lieberman said in an interview that “the reality is that the more you talk about the details of somebody’s religion, the more you encourage voters to vote on the religion rather than on the person and his policies.”

Romney hasn’t made identification of such boundaries any easier. He has highlighted his devoutness and churchgoing, but he has avoided discussing the substance of his religion.

“People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology,” Romney said last month at Liberty University, a flagship institution for evangelical Christians.

That message struck a somewhat different tone than his “Faith in America” speech in 2007, which some critics saw as overly eager to put Mormonism on equal theological footing with more traditional Christian faiths. At Liberty, he moved the emphasis off of theology. “Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview,” he said.

This broader emphasis has emerged as a theme for Romney. “I’ve been in the same church my entire life,” he said in a November debate, a quote he later used in a campaign spot in Iowa.

In February, after losing three states in one day to Rick Santorum, Romney highlighted his pastoral experience to supporters in Atlanta. “In my church,” he said, “we don’t have a professional ministry, and so people are asked to serve as the minister or the pastor of their congregation from time to time, and I had that privilege for over 10 years.”

But Romney clearly prefers to talk about his religion on his own terms.

At an event in Wisconsin in April, a man began asking the candidate about some of the more controversial aspects of Mormonism, including its past ban on blacks in the priesthood.

“I’m sorry, we’re just not going to have a discussion about religion in my view, but if you have a question, I’ll be happy to answer your question,” Romney said.

“I guess my question is, do you believe it’s a sin for a white man to marry and procreate with a black?” the man asked.

“No,” Romney snapped, turning to the other side of the room. “Next question.”

Later at the event, he elaborated: “This gentleman wanted to talk about the doctrines of my religion. I’ll talk about the practices of my faith.’’

Romney has declined to clarify whether he believed that the ban — which was still in effect as he entered the local church hierarchy in Boston — was divine doctrine or flawed teaching. He has refused to comment on the policy beyond expressing relief that it was lifted. A friend of his at Brigham Young University has said that Romney considered it disrespectful to question the word of the church hierarchy and that he bristled against colleges that protested the ban by boycotting athletic competitions with BYU.

But Romney has also demonstrated an aversion to talking about subjects most Mormons proudly discuss, including the religion’s founding story.

“Without the Joseph Smith story, you don’t have a Mormonism,” said Patrick Mason, a professor of Mormon studies and an expert on anti-Mormonism at Claremont Graduate University. “And there is no way, especially given Romney’s church positions, all that I can collect, that he is personally embarrassed by that story. I think what is going on is a political move.”

Romney, who faced degrees of anti-Mormon rhetoric in his unsuccessful 1994 U.S. Senate race and in his winning 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign, has long steered clear of his faith in its entirety.

In 2007, in the full swing of his first presidential bid, he encountered Greg Prince, a prominent Mormon scholar, in the reception line at a Washington fundraiser. Prince, who does not support Romney, was consulting on a PBS documentary about Mormonism and asked the candidate if he’d be willing to sit down and discuss his faith for the cameras.

Romney declined and, according to Prince, explained, “We have made the determination that this issue will go away.”

As Romney’s political star has risen, so has interest in Mormonism. That creates complications for the campaign, but it also presents opportunities and potential pitfalls for the church.

“We obviously think it is fair game to talk about how religion contributes to someone’s character, to their worldview perhaps, and what policy they would have as president,” said Michael Purdy, media relations director for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has declared that it will stay neutral in the race. “But there are some things that seem to have gone too far.”

The church’s concern is that with a Mormon nominee, coverage of the religion’s tenets is “wrapped up in a political story,” as Purdy put it. As a result, more peculiar pieces of the Mormon belief system can and have been cherry-picked as ammunition by political enemies, or a hostile press, to damage the candidate or the church.

Purdy also said that, as a relatively young religion, Mormonism does not enjoy the authenticating quality of antiquity. Because it came of age in a modern time, its theology and saintly visitations can strike people as stranger than those of older religions shrouded by centuries.

As for Romney, church officials said it is up to the candidate how much he divulges about his beliefs and his role within the church. “But it is a matter of public record that he served as a Mormon bishop and a stake president, which is somewhat a larger responsibility,” said Michael Otter­son, the church’s head of worldwide public affairs. “It is up to him to decide if he wants to talk about that.”

Asked whether it was inappropriate to discuss Joseph Smith and the core beliefs of Mormonism in connection with Romney’s time as a leader in the church, Otterson said: “We’re very excited about Joseph Smith; it is absolutely core to us. But how to do that in the context of this kind of reporting? . . . It would just seem to me that you would want to run a sidebar.”

Mason, the expert in anti-Mormon history, said there is certainly a danger of bad-faith media attacks on Mormonism through Romney, or vice versa. But he also said Romney has a rare opportunity to take advantage of the interest in his church to educate the country about the faith that has shaped him.

“If they chose, this could be a great teachable moment,” he said of Romney and his aides. “But to do that, it would force them to go onto territory that would be unpopular.”

Many of Romney’s supporters, and even some of his former opponents, have advised against it.

“I would not recommend that,” said former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who beat Romney in the 2008 Iowa caucusesand once had to apologize to his rival for asking if Mormons believed that “Jesus and the devil are brothers.” “For the same reason that a Pentecostal goes out and says, ‘This is what I believe about speaking in tongues’ to a nonbeliever, they are not going to get that. They are going to think, ‘Gosh, that’s something I don’t understand.’ If a person talks about when they pray they really hear God speaking to them, that spooks some people, that just creeps them out. They don’t get it.”

Beyond other churchgoers’ reservations about their faith, many Mormons are wary about the assault the religion might come under from the secular left. Maher, the HBO comedian — who has given $1 million to a pro-Obama super PAC — has reinforced that fear by repeatedly calling Mormonism a “cult.”

It is understandable that the Romney campaign would be sensitive to such criticism. But its guard is likewise up against biographical descriptions of the candidate’s life in the church.

In her e-mail, Saul, the campaign spokeswoman, combed through last fall’s Post story and substituted every reference to Mormonism and the Mormon Church, producing more Semitic-flavored sentences about a “young synagogue leader named Mitt Romney,” and “a group of devout but independent Jew women” who all belonged to “the Synagogue of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Her version observed that Romney “was far from the only young and brilliant Jew on Harvard’s campus” and ended with one devout woman’s trip to “the Jew Temple in neighboring Belmont, where she performs proxy baptisms for the deceased and other synagogue rites.”

Speaking to an audience at BYU in October, Lieberman said that if Romney became the nominee, “he’s going to have to educate people about the Mormon faith.” Romney’s emphasis on faith, such as at Liberty University last month, might speed that process up. “If a candidate of his own initiative speaks about something like that,” Lieberman said in the interview, “they may be asked questions about it.”

Jason Horowitz covers politics for The Washington Post.

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