The Mormon Question

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2007

Even if Mitt Romney doesn't become the first Mormon president next year, his candidacy has prompted discussion among American Mormons about everything from church-state relations to what constitutes "Mormon" political values. And little in the campaign has elicited as much debate as Romney's recent high-profile speech about his faith.

Since Romney gave the talk last week, political pundits and experts on American religion have been analyzing its impact on the electorate, primarily on conservative Christians who are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with Mormonism. Mormons themselves, who make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population, have been wrestling with other questions, too: Why was this speech necessary? And since the Republican decided to make it, should he have given more or less information on what Mormons believe?

Newspapers in majority-Mormon Utah headlined the fact that Romney barely addressed his Mormonism in the talk. But some Mormons didn't think that was a problem.

"He didn't specifically say, 'We believe in this or that,' but that's not necessary. If you want to find that out, come to a sacrament meeting," said Jeannette Clawson, 69, a retired bookkeeper from Potomac who is a registered Republican but says she has never voted a straight ticket.

Others felt Romney should have said more about how Mormonism differs from other faiths that believe in Jesus.

"I think he caved in a little,'' said Crystal Young-Otterstrom, who is active in an international advocacy group, Mormons for Equality and Social Justice. "Mormonism has a strong tradition for peace, equality and being stewards of the environment. It would have been nice to see him talk about that."

Some Mormons were angry that Romney alone discussed his faith in such a prominent way. The fact that Romney felt he had to give the speech to be accepted by Christian Republicans raises questions about the GOP for Young-Otterstrom, 27, who works in arts marketing in Salt Lake City.

"A big comment I've heard has been that perhaps this demonstrates that maybe the Republican Party isn't the best home for Latter-day Saints," she said. "Certainly if this was [fellow Mormon and Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-Nev.], he would not have to make such a speech to his party."

Seeing Romney's recent comments on Iran as advocating for an "offensive" strategy, Young-Otterstrom said she doesn't view that as "cohesive with Mormon doctrine. He should pursue peace first, and he isn't living up to that."

Mormon Americans have been strong supporters of the Bush administration and its policies, on everything from the Iraq war to same-sex marriage. In 2004, 76 percent of Mormon voters cast ballots for the president. Fifty-three percent of Mormons describe themselves as Republican, twice the percentage in the general population. There are no national data on how Mormons feel about Romney, religion polling experts say, though the November 2006 Utah Colleges Exit Poll showed 68 percent of Utah Mormons chose him in a hypothetical primary. About 35 percent of U.S. Mormons live in Utah.

Brandon Dabling, 23, a Mormon senior at Brigham Young University, said he now supports Romney, but wasn't initially sure if the former Massachusetts governor was aggressive enough on anti-terrorism issues. Dabling, opinion editor at the Daily Universe school newspaper, said he was relieved that Romney didn't mimic President John F. Kennedy's vow to keep religion out of politics in an effort to placate those who are skeptical or ignorant of Mormonism.

"If he did give such a speech, like a JFK speech, he'd be being politically expedient -- which is something he's been tagged before as. He can't come out and say there is an absolute separation between church and state because that's not what he believes. And I agree with his characterization of church-state relations."

During his successful 1960 campaign, Kennedy delivered a speech in Houston that was designed to assure voters that as the nation's first Roman Catholic president, he would not let church officials dictate his decisions as chief executive.

Since Romney announced his candidacy, church officials repeatedly have emphasized that the church does not get involved in political campaigns and respects that Mormon politicians have to represent diverse constituencies. The Mormon Church is not as politically involved as some denominations, but there are exceptions, such as when it wrote letters and donated money to campaigns opposing same-sex marriage in several Western states.

Mormons had mixed reactions to Romney's rebuke of what he called a growing "religion of secularism." The notion of church-state separation has been taken too far, he said in his speech, stating that "freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom."

Mormons interviewed for this article, analysts and publications in heavily Mormon areas reflected support for this view.

But Richard Bushman, a Mormon historian known for his work on American religious history, including the Mormon church, said Romney's speech reflected Mormons' "tone-deafness" when it comes to atheists and non-religious people.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company