Will Christians Back a Mormon Candidate?

The Associated Press
Thursday, December 21, 2006; 5:05 PM

BOSTON -- As a clean-living, church-going father and grandfather, Gov. Mitt Romney has a natural appeal among conservative Christians.

The Massachusetts Republican, though, faces a delicate dilemma: How does a devout Mormon woo religious activists critical to winning the GOP presidential nomination when many of those same activists are openly hostile to a faith they consider no more than cult?

For his all-but-announced presidential bid to succeed, Romney must win primary votes across the Bible Belt from people whose churches have a historical antagonism with his own Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"The rhetoric between evangelicals and Mormons has been almost abusive," said Richard Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in California, the largest evangelical seminary in North America.

Romney also will angle for support from millions of Americans whose own preachers have criticized past Mormon practices such as polygamy, as well as the Mormons' refusal to allow black priests until 1978.

Yet he just may be able to overcome those concerns because of two things: his family-oriented lifestyle, and a primary campaign that could pit him against rivals like Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Not only have both of them have been divorced, but Giuliani harbors liberal social views antithetical to many evangelicals, and McCain has clashed in very public fashion in the past with the religious right.

"Most Americans are pragmatists. There will be a fraction of evangelical Protestants who will be vociferous in their opposition to Romney, but depending on who the other candidates are, that could be a very small fraction," said Mark Noll, an evangelical expert who teaches American religious history at Notre Dame.

Looking ahead to the 2008 general election, Mouw was more direct: "If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic candidate and Mitt Romney is the Republican candidate, my guess is that evangelicals will take a deep breath and pull the lever for Mitt Romney."

Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, ran for president in 1968. Yet questions about his faith were short-circuited when his campaign ended after he said he had been subjected to "a brainwashing" by U.S. generals during a visit to Vietnam.

The 59-year-old Mitt Romney, a former venture capitalist wrapping up his one and only term in elective office, is expected to announce his candidacy early next month. He has cultivated a national network of financial supporters, including many in his own church, and his success in establishing the nation's first universal health plan in Massachusetts should make him a credible candidate.

While other Mormons have held positions of political power, including Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, none has ever been elected president. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, also a Mormon, sought the GOP nomination in 2000, but was quickly eliminated from the race. The possibility of a Mormon president has renewed questions about whether the public in general _ and evangelicals in particular _ would support a candidate from a faith that the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant group, considers a cult.

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