The first time he ran for president, Mitt Romney chose again and again to confront the suspicions and prejudices held by many in the Republican Party’s evangelical base about his Mormon faith.
This time, Romney is focusing relentlessly on the economy and is conspicuous in how rarely he talks about God. He no longer tries to convince evangelical voters that he is as Christian as they are, that Jesus Christ is his personal savior and that he, too, reads the Gideon Bible before bed.
And when the politically uncomfortable issue of his religion boiled over this weekend in the most pronounced way yet in the 2012 contest, Romney pursued his new strategy of not directly addressing his faith.
At a gathering of Christian conservative voters in Washington on Friday, evangelical megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, chosen to introduce Texas Gov. Rick Perry, attacked Romney by telling reporters the Mormon Church is “a cult” and “Mormonism is not Christianity.” Perry quickly distanced himself from that view, telling reporters in Iowa that he did not agree with the remarks.
When Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, addressed the same summit Saturday, he never uttered the word “Mormon.” He spoke of the nation’s “heritage of religious faith and tolerance,” but not of his own faith.
Romney did, however, feel compelled to denounce religious bigotry and take on those who inject what he called “poisonous language” into the political arena.
“The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate,” Romney said. “The task before us is to focus on the conservative beliefs and the values that unite us. Let no agenda narrow our vision or drive us apart. We have important work to accomplish.”
Mark DeMoss, a prominent evangelical strategist and senior adviser to Romney, said Romney is “largely ignoring” the attacks on his religion. He said this is “in part because it’s an old line of attack by now and also in part because I think more people are going to reject that kind of campaigning that was represented by Jeffress.” In a poll, most Republican-leaning voters said they don’t care whether a candidate is Mormon.
Jeffress is a longtime Perry supporter and partnered with Perry for “The Response,” an August prayer event at a Houston football stadium.
Perry’s campaign said the governor does not agree with the Baptist preacher’s comments about Romney’s religion but stopped short of condemning them. Perry spokesman Robert Black told reporters Friday: “The governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult. He is not in the business of judging people. That’s God’s plan.”
Before Romney took the podium at the Values Voter Summit, conservative commentator Bill Bennett upbraided Jeffress by name. “Do not give voice to bigotry,” Bennett said.
Backstage, Romney thanked Bennett for what he said, and Romney began his speech with an acknowledgment: “Speaking of hitting it out of the park, how about that Bill Bennett?”
Bennett was one of the few speakers at the summit to publicly condemn the attacks on Romney’s religion, something Romney’s advisers said was disappointing. Romney himself was aware of Jeffress’s comments, advisers said, and was not particularly bothered by them.
“Attacks on his faith, unfortunately, aren’t new,” said DeMoss, who was with Romney all morning. “He’s grown pretty thick- skinned on these things and maintained a really good sense of composure and even humor about it.”
In the 2008 race, Romney’s Mormonism became a significant obstacle, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina, early voting states where Christian conservatives made up a critical Republican voting bloc. He finished second in Iowa and fourth in South Carolina — behind former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a onetime Baptist preacher, in both states.
In the heat of the primary season, Huckabee asked, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” He later apologized for his incorrect statement.
Many Americans were then and remain largely uninformed about the theological beliefs of Mormons, who make up 2 percent of the U.S. population.
Mormonism deviates from majority Christian belief in some key ways, including the beliefs that God revealed an additional gospel in the 19th century through Joseph Smith and that the contemporary leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon Church is formally known, is a modern-day prophet. There are also many doctrinal differences over such issues as whether God is a body or a spirit.
When Romney first stepped out as a presidential candidate, he spoke more openly about his faith than he does now. In a lengthy 2007 interview with Karen Tumulty, then a correspondent for Time magazine, Romney expressed dismay at the assumptions some voters made about him because of his faith and lamented that Mormonism too often is mischaracterized.
“There are caricatures that take the most unusual teaching and turn it into the central tenet of the faith [or] pick some obscure aspect of your faith that you never think about [and] assume that was the whole central element of the church,” Romney said.
He described himself as a devout Mormon, saying it was “a part of my foundation throughout my life.” He said he does not pick and choose what parts of the faith to believe: “I’m not a cafeteria member of my faith.”
Although his family was prominent in the Mormon Church, Romney grew up in Michigan, where few Mormons lived. This, he said, was helpful in shaping his character. “It’s a blessing to be different, to stand up for that,” he said, recalling an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Marge gave that advice to her daughter, Lisa.
During his first presidential campaign, Romney made an aggressive play for social conservatives despite theological differences. He privately courted influential pastors and delivered the commencement address at Pat Robertson’s Regent University.
To some extent, it worked. Romney won the endorsements of Bob Jones III, chancellor of the Christian college in South Carolina that bears his grandfather’s name, and other evangelical leaders. Still, many social conservatives viewed Romney skeptically, both because of his evolving positions on abortion and gay marriage and because of his Mormonism.
Through much of 2007, Romney agonized over how to address his religion. He had studied the speech John F. Kennedy gave about his Catholicism when Kennedy was running for president but pondered whether he should give a similar address of his own. In December 2007, with Huckabee overtaking him in Iowa, Romney decided it was time. In a speech at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas, Romney said he would not abandon “the faith of my fathers” but spoke the language of the evangelical movement to show that his values were no different than theirs.
“He didn’t say ‘born-again,’ but he might as well have. That’s not the way Mormons talk about Jesus. They call him an ‘elder brother,’ ” said Jan Shipps, a leading historian of Mormonism. Now, she said, “he’s not trying to say, ‘I’m like the evangelicals.’ He’s just saying, ‘I’m Mitt Romney. Take me as I am.’ ”
In this, his second campaign, Romney is the national front-runner, and one of the big questions hanging over him is how much his faith will shape how Republican primary voters view him. Romney’s advisers and other political strategists believe it will be less of an issue than before — both because his religious beliefs were so thoroughly vetted in the 2008 race and because the economy is such an overwhelming concern.
“The novelty of the Mormon issue has largely worn off,” said Ralph Reed, a prominent conservative Christian strategist who is uncommitted in the 2012 race. “My sense is Romney is more accepted than before, if only through sheer familiarity. He paid his dues, ran before, checked all the boxes and appeared at all the prominent social conservative events. I think he’s getting a fair hearing.”
A Washington Post-ABC News poll in June found that for three quarters of voters who leaned Republican, whether a candidate is Mormon would not affect their vote. Twenty-one percent said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who was a Mormon, down from 36 percent when the question was first asked in 2006.
“They know they’re voting for a commander in chief, not bishop in chief, not preacher in chief, not pastor in chief,” said Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
In South Carolina, where Romney campaigned last week, one of his top surrogates said Romney’s religion is no longer a big concern for Republican activists.
“Last time, Mormonism was the issue,” state Rep. Nathan Ballentine said. “His religion hasn’t come up this time around. Let’s not be naive. It’ll come up, I’m sure, from other candidates as it gets closer. But to most people, this is about fixing America.”
Staff writers Felicia Sonmez, Michelle Boorstein and Karen Tumulty and polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.