Romney’s religion still a sticking point

January 2, 2012

— On a recent afternoon at the Kanesville Tabernacle, the historic site along the Mormon Trail where pioneers selected Brigham Young to lead their church in 1847, Sister LaRae Wright lamented that 150 years later many Iowans still know nothing about the Mormon faith.

Mitt Romney, she said, could change that.

“I want him to shout it from the rooftops,” Sister Wright burst out with a chuckle. Then she paused. “But does that make political sense?”

It does not. Conversations with voters and evangelical leaders across Iowa reveal that a suspicion of Mormonism may still be a central reason for those opposing the former Massachusetts governor. But by establishing himself as the electability candidate in the field, Romney has created a political tension between that undercurrent of religious antipathy and a more open hostility toward President Obama.The outcome of Tuesday’s caucuses could depend on whether the fear of a second Obama term trumps the trepidation about Romney’s religion.

“The evangelicals have an issue with Mormonism,” Don Blackford, a longtime Romney supporter, said at the candidate’s rally here. “You are not supposed to mix religion and politics, but I know Iowa and people here do. I don’t think they can get over their bigotry.”

In an effort to build a bridge to evangelicals, Romney has resorted to appealing to a shared sense of patriotism, spending the final days of the Iowa campaign exhalting the nation as sacred and denigrating Obama.

“In that wonderful hymn, ‘America the Beautiful,’ there is a stanza that begins, ‘Oh beautiful, for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years,’ ” Romney said Sunday at the Bayliss Park Hall, a few blocks from a replica of the tabernacle where life-size dioramas of Brigham Young overlooked a Christmas exhibit of gingerbread houses. “I believe that the founders, the patriots, in their dream of America was not to establish a nation that would last for a little while, but principles that would be enduring. I believe in those principles.”

In contrast, he said Obama’s belief “would poison the very spirit of America that allows us to be one nation under God.” He concluded, “I’m asking you to do everything in your power to make sure that people who believe, like you and I, have the support that you can give.”

Romney’s political enemies have counseled that the best way for him to win over those wary evangelicals is to be as explicit as possible about his Mormonism.

“There is always a fear of the unknown, the only way to lessen that fear is to be very clear,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, an influential Christian activist organization that stridently opposes Romney and has endorsed former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.). “And I think that onus is on Governor Romney.”

Romney has rejected that advice. He is instead counting on his new American gospel (“I love America.” “I love this land.”) to connect with those Iowa voters concerned about his faith.

On Sunday afternoon, potential voters in Atlantic waited for Romney at the Family Table restaurant. A few tables down from a group of Mormons, Karen Poe, 68, fresh out of church services, sat with her husband, Phil, around ketchup-stained plates. “Beating Obama is my bottom line,” she said, but isn’t sure she can get behind Romney.

“He’s a Mormon,” Poe said, grimacing at the mention of Romney’s name. “Everyone needs to base their decision on something, and the basis for his decisions would be different. I’m not convinced it’s a good point of view to be coming from.”

Poe, an evangelical member of the Assemblies of God church outside Des Moines, said that while she’d also have issues with a Jewish or Muslim candidate, Mormons worried her more. “They are a very controlling religion,” she said.

“He could put Mormon judges on the bench and things like that,” interjected her husband.

A few minutes later, Romney, flanked by his wife, Ann, and the couple’s youngest son, Craig, entered the packed restaurant to applause.

“This is an election not just about replacing President Obama, it’s an election about the soul of America,” Romney said, as Poe gingerly climbed a chair to get a better view. As Romney cited the Declaration of Independence, Poe nodded in agreement. “They said that we had been endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. And as you know, those rights came not from the state, not from the government, but from our creator.”

“He did great,” Poe said as Romney walked around the room shaking hands. “If he were the chosen candidate, I could support him, yes.”

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