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Mitt Romney: proudly, quietly Mormon

The former governor of Massachusetts is a Mormon in full. But, facing a wary public, he has played his faith cautiously on the presidential campaign trail.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 9, 2007

Ottumwa, Iowa

Successful businessman, rescuer of the scandal-marred 2002 Olympics, governor of Massachusetts. The highlights of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's résumé are well known. But there's a fourth point that he does not advertise in his stump speech: 12 years in top leadership positions in the Boston-area Mormon community.

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For three years, from 1982 to 1985, Mr. Romney served as the bishop, or lay pastor, at his church in Belmont, Mass. After that, he served nine years as "stake" president, overseeing about a dozen Boston-area parishes. But it was his time as bishop that gave him the most contact with everyday churchgoers. He organized weekly church services and ministered to parishioners, offering spiritual guidance on whatever problems they brought to him – financial, marital, physical, anything. He heard confessions of sin and determined who is allowed to enter a Mormon temple, a privilege reserved for those who meet the church's high standards of personal conduct. He distributed church funds to those in need.

Romney's church work was voluntary – Mormon congregations have no paid clergy – but the time commitment was intense, even as he built a high-flying career in his "day job," first in management consulting and then private-equity investment.

Being a bishop is "a very weighty responsibility, which you take with a great deal of care and sobriety," Romney said in a Monitor interview.

He says the experience taught him that, despite the sea of happy faces he saw each week at church, everybody faces hardships. That lesson is just as vibrant for him now, as a presidential candidate, traveling the country and addressing crowds.

"As I sat in that room today and met with all those people, I know that almost everyone there, smiling and cheerful as they are, has some real challenges," Romney said, speaking of the 100 or so voters he had just addressed at an event in Ottumwa, Iowa. "They're hoping that collectively we can help one another, and that's something I very much hope I can do if I'm elected."

Easing public concern

That Romney's Mormon faith infuses his life and informs his approach to public service is evident. But at this unusually religion-focused time in politics, the irony is that Romney has had to be more cautious than most presidential candidates in how he discusses his faith. Public wariness toward the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the Mormon Church's official name, remains deep-seated. Polls continue to show that a sizable portion of the electorate – 27 percent, Newsweek found in July – would not vote for a Mormon for president. Among GOP primary voters, the numbers get even more daunting: A February poll by the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of white evangelical Protestants, most of whom are Republicans, would be "less likely" to support a Mormon for president.

One other issue poses as significant a hurdle to Romney in his quest for the nomination: his switch to conservative positions on social issues, including abortion and stem-cell research. Some conservatives remain skeptical over the timing of his conversion, coming as it did after he had won the governorship of liberal Massachusetts and began laying the groundwork for a presidential run.

But it's the Mormon issue that could turn ugly for Romney. Already, anti-Mormon incidents have sprung up out of rival GOP presidential campaigns. In a few instances, voters themselves have confronted Romney with hostile questions. One, captured on a video posted on YouTube, refused to shake his hand.

As the January start of primary season draws closer, "I think [his religion] is a huge problem for him …. if he's doing well in the polls," says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "This is a party that unleashes attack dogs, and it will be too tempting for one of the other candidates not to do it.

"It doesn't matter that Mormonism is by now a very fast-growing and successful religion," he adds. "It doesn't matter that Romney's Mormon faith has in no way impeded his political career thus far. Same with Harry Reid [the Senate Democratic leader, also a Mormon]…. When ordinary people start to think about Mormonism, the word that flits across their brain is 'cult.' "