When a supporter in Council Bluffs, Iowa, nudged Mitt Romney to defend his Mormon faith last week, the Republican frontrunner said he wasn’t planning to. Shouldn’t he be pushing back, she wanted to know, against those who, like his rival Rick Perry’s supporter the Rev. Robert Jeffress, call the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a cult and insist that Romney is not a Christian?
“I don’t think so,’’ the former Massachusetts governor said at a campaign stop in strongly evangelical western Iowa. “I think a great majority of American people want to select the person who is the most capable of getting our country going again with strong values, a strong economy and a strong military; a religious test shouldn’t be applied to people who are running for office,’’ he said to applause. “But,’’ he added, “I am shaped by the Judeo-Christian values which I have and hope that those will hold me in good stead as they have so far.”
The 2012 Republican presidential candidates were grilled on their view of the Mormon faith after a Rick Perry supporter claimed it was a cult.
It’s a fact of political life that religion has become as much a part of presidential campaigns as it is part of the everyday lives of Americans, and conversations about it on the stump are here to stay. In touting his “strong values” — spelling out that his are of the Judeo-Christian variety, and that they are indeed what shaped him — he’s acknowledging the necessity of explicitly tying his core identity to his faith. But he is also signaling that he’s not planning to get any more specific than he has to, or rush down a road that’s particularly hazardous for candidates whose faith is less well-known, as Romney’s is.
That’s a balance every presidential candidate must now make, on a topic that not so long ago was thought too private — and, yes, too sacred — to be displayed and dissected in public. Romney’s specific predicament, though, is that while American voters overwhelmingly view religious faith as a positive, one in five Republican voters still see Mormonism in a negative light.
This is even more problematic because Romney’s past policy switches mean he needs to prove that he has values he won’t compromise and to speak in detail about where he got them: “I am shaped by the Judeo-Christian values which I have.’’
As a practical matter, Romney couldn’t avoid talking about his faith if he wanted to; “Mormon” was the top one-word description of the candidate in a recent Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll. Nor is there any doubt about his sincerity: The great-great grandson of Mormon pioneers graduated from Brigham Young University, was a missionary in France and while serving as bishop — a lay position in his faith — is known to have bucked up fellow believers both practically and spiritually. Clayton Christensen, a Harvard business professor, recently told the New York Times that during a period when he and his wife were overwhelmed by church and family responsibilities, their lay leader Romney showed up at the door unexpectedly one evening and said, “I was just driving home from work and I had a feeling that I needed to stop by and tell you that God loves you.”