Mitt Romney has largely avoided discussing the details of his Mormon faith throughout this year’s presidential race, speaking in general terms about his church-related values and charitable deeds. But the revival this week of a testy 2007 interview caught on video offers a reminder of the struggles Romney has confronted as a politician wary of being defined, or confined, by his faith.
The video, which has become an Internet sensation in the closing days of his campaign to unseat President Obama, shows Romney sparring off-air with an Iowa radio talk show host over the tenets and beliefs of Mormonism — including a discussion of abortion and the second coming of Jesus Christ — and scolding the interviewer for bringing it up.
“I don’t like coming on the air and having you go after my church and me,” Romney told Jan Mickelson, the host of a popular conservative show on WHO-AM in Des Moines, in the August 2007 encounter as he was seeking the 2008 GOP nomination. “I’m not running as a Mormon, and I get a little tired of coming on shows like yours and having it all about Mormon.”
The identity of the YouTube user who posted a portion of the interview Wednesday was not clear, but by early Sunday the video had been viewed more than 1.2 million times, even though other versions had been available online for five years.
Many of those spreading the video were liberals, such as Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, who retweeted the link twice and called it “MUST SEE TV.”
A spokeswoman for Romney’s campaign declined to comment, as did a church spokesman. Romney has said in the past that he didn’t know he was being filmed during the discussion after his official interview, claiming that he was taped on a “hidden camera.”
Romney’s faith has been politically sensitive in the past, particularly for some core GOP evangelical voters, but in recent weeks social conservatives have flocked to his candidacy. The growing support suggests religious conservatives have abandoned their initial skepticism of Romney based on his faith— or at least that their fervor for defeating Obama has diminished any prior concerns about putting a Mormon in the Oval Office.
Where in his unsuccessful 2008 campaign Romney attempted to mollify evangelicals and other skeptics with a speech on Mormonism, this time he and his supporters have instead limited discussion to how religion has informed Romney’s values and charitable good deeds.
The shift by social conservatives was cemented in a sense last month, when the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association removed Mormonism from a list of religious cults, as first reported by the Charlotte Observer, and the longtime evangelist’s son, Franklin, wrote a column saying it was okay for a religious Christian to vote for a Mormon.
Evangelical leaders now say Romney could be the beneficiary of a major mobilization of “values voters,” largely as a response to Obama’s tilt to the left on social issues such as his support for same-sex marriage and his backing of a rule requiring coverage of contraception in employee health plans.
“What has happened during this campaign is that voters with significant theological differences — Orthodox Jews, Catholics, evangelicals, Mormons — have for the most part come to the conclusion that in the public square and in politics, they are all on the same side against an increasingly left-wing and secular Democratic Party,” said Gary Bauer, president of the evangelical group American Values.
Conservative talk show host Michael Medved argued in a Daily Beast column last week that Romney’s candidacy “has already made history by achieving a new pluralism in the Republican Party and encouraging a more inclusive focus for the religious right.” Medved wrote that he attended a conservative event in Cleveland recently in which an enthusiastic crowd “included a prominent portion of evangelical Christians who nonetheless cheered lustily at every mention of a Mormon named Romney.”
Democratic strategist Rosen said she had been struck by Romney’s explanation in the video of how his shifting views on abortion over the years were unrelated to the views of his church, which opposes abortion. Anti-abortion politicians, she said, typically cite their religion as a primary factor in shaping their views on the issue.
“I just thought that was the most voluble explanation of his anti-choice view that we’ve seen,” Rosen said.
The issue came up in the 2007 interview when Mickelson asked Romney why his past support for abortion rights had not violated Mormonism. The question prompted a visibly angry Romney to argue that the church prohibits abortions but does not bar members from supporting the rights of others to make their own choices.
Romney did not point out that he had contended with the political implications of the church’s abortion views in the past. A former aide to Romney from his time as a leader in the Boston church would later recall that Romney had visited Salt Lake City shortly before his 1994 Senate bid, polling in hand, to show members of the church hierarchy that it was impossible to win in Massachusetts without supporting abortion rights. At the time, Romney told the aide, Ron Scott, that he had “left a few bridges burning, or at least smoldering.”
In the 2007 video interview, Romney told Mickelson that his opposition to abortion rights came about from a political decision, when as governor he faced a choice about the use of embryonic stem cells.
“Politically, I looked at it, I said, ‘You know what, that’s wrong,’” Romney told Mickelson. “And it’s not a Mormon thing, it’s a secular position to say, ‘You know what, I was wrong, we should have as a society a prohibition on abortion under the following circumstances.’ But it’s not violating my faith, let me assure you.”
Mickelson also quizzed Romney about his past statements that Christ would return to Jerusalem, a view shared by other Christians but which Mickelson argued was not the true view of Mormons. Some Mormons believe Missouri, one of the states traversed by early Mormon pioneers in their escape from persecution, is the site of the Garden of Eden and one of the places that Christ will rule from.
Christ will appear in Jerusalem, Romney said, waving his hands for effect. “That’s where the coming and glory of Christ occurs,” he said. “We also believe that over the thousand years that follows, the millennium, he will reign from two places, that the law will come forward from one place, from Missouri and the other will be in Jerusalem.”
Romney has rarely, if ever, used such specific language during the 2012 campaign to discuss his faith.
Patrick Mason, a scholar of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University, said Romney has learned “to speak in such generic terms that he could have been a Methodist.”
Still, Mason said the timing of the old video’s revival was “suspect.” He said he has observed an increase in recent weeks of chatter online about Romney and his faith.
“A lot of people are saying this is a last-ditch effort by people who oppose Romney to bring out the Mormon card, to bring out the weirdness,” said Mason.
The video shows Romney growing increasingly agitated as he speaks with Mickelson. The host, meantime, appears unconvinced as he sits just a few feet from Romney in a cramped radio studio. Romney, wearing a shirt and tie, repeatedly argues that he has a far better understanding of his religion than the talk show host.
“You’re trying to tell me that I’m not a faithful Mormon,” Romney said at one point.
The episode clearly stuck with the candidate. A few months later that year, when CBS’ Katie Couric asked if he had ever lost his temper, Romney cited the interview as an example of a rare moment of personal frustration. He recalled that the host began “drilling me about my faith, and I became intense in confronting what he had said.”
One other aspect of the interview annoyed him, too.
“Unbeknownst to me,” Romney said, “he had a hidden camera on the console, so this then popped up on the Internet.”
Mickelson, in an interview, called Romney’s subsequent comments surprising.
“There were two cameras mounted on tripods,” the talk show host recalled. “This was not at a bar, it was a radio talk show in front of cameras. What did he think was going to happen?”
Horowitz reported from Salt Lake City.