Will Mitt Romney's 'Mormon moment' help his campaign?

When a Dallas pastor called Mr. Romney’s faith – Mormonism – a 'cult' at a recent convention of Christian conservatives, he brought into the open the role of religion in the primaries.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney addressed the Values Voter Summit in Washington in October. Evangelical voters appear divided in their support for Romney.

Perhaps Robert Jeffress did Mitt Romney a favor.

When the Dallas pastor called Mr. Romney’s faith – Mormonism – a “cult” at a recent convention of Christian conservatives, he brought into the open a simmering issue: whether a leading Republican presidential candidate should be judged over religious beliefs some Americans see as outside the mainstream.

Romney’s “Mormon moment” was bound to happen sooner or later in this campaign. Four years ago, during his first presidential campaign, it happened when the chatter over Mormonism got loud enough that the former Massachusetts governor saw fit to deliver a major speech on faith. Most memorably, it was presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, who made headlines by wondering out loud if Mormons believe Jesus and the devil are brothers. He later apologized to Romney, but the damage may already have been done.

This time, polls show continuing public reservations about electing a Mormon president – especially among white Evangelicals, an important part of the Republican base. In June, a Pew Research Center poll showed 34 percent of white Evangelicals are “less likely” to support a Mormon for president; 25 percent of the overall population feels that way. Those numbers are little changed from 2007.

So, with Romney standing an excellent chance at winning the GOP nomination, the question was not if, but when he would have to address his faith.

If nothing else, the clumsiness of the comments by Mr. Jeffress, senior pastor at a Southern Baptist megachurch in Dallas, made Romney an object of sympathy and put Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whom Jeffress endorsed, on the spot. Governor Perry’s campaign has said the governor does not view Mormonism as a cult, but he has yet to disavow Jeffress. On Oct. 11, Romney called on Perry to repudiate the pastor’s comments.

“I think it ends up in some small way helping Romney,” says the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “People don’t want to be associated with an attack on someone’s religion like this.”

But even if Romney doesn’t gain from the episode, it’s still early enough in the presidential cycle that the Romney campaign has time to contain any negative fallout from the attention to his faith, should it come.

“I don’t know if this was a favor to Romney, but it’s probably better from the point of view of any campaign to have criticism like this come out early rather than last minute,” says John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron in Ohio.

When the controversial Mr. Huckabee quote about Mormons came out in the last campaign, it was just a few weeks before the first nominating contest, the Iowa caucuses, which the former Arkansas governor went on to win. But, the dynamic of this cycle is wholly different. Republicans are passionate about defeating President Obama and getting the economy on track, so a candidate’s electability and conservative economic credentials are essential – not his or her religious faith.

In addition, there’s no Huckabee in the mix – that is, no obvious choice for the Christian conservative voters who dominate in Iowa and in the early South Carolina primary. More generally, Republican voters who flat-out oppose Romney or are still shopping for a candidate have not coalesced around any of the alternatives.

Yet in a fundamental way, religion always matters in presidential politics. A July poll by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that 56 percent of the public says it is important for a presidential candidate to have “strong religious beliefs, regardless of whether those beliefs are the same as yours.” Thus, it comes as no surprise that there’s so much interest in candidates’ faith.

“We’re only in October, and already faith in public life has been a significant part of this campaign,” says Tim Goeglein, author of “The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era.”

Perry held a Christian faith rally a week before declaring a run for president. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s brand of Christian conservatism was the focus of a lengthy New Yorker profile. And businessman Herman Cain is a Baptist minister.

If any of them, or someone else, emerges as the alternative to Romney, expect more scrutiny of their beliefs. Despite a recent surge by Mr. Cain, Romney still leads in most polls. If he continues to raise large sums of money, and sail through the debates unscathed, he’s the man under the microscope.

At the Values Voter Summit in Washington, where Jeffress made his controversial comments, it wasn’t difficult to find attendees unwilling to vote for Romney, at least in the primaries. Many readily agreed that Mormonism is a cult – and that they in fact didn’t know much about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormons are formally known. But that wasn’t necessarily the top reason to reject Romney. His authorship of the Massachusetts health-care reform, a model for Mr. Obama’s reform, was one. Others had different reasons.

“Here’s my problem with Romney,” says Justin Murff, a Republican activist from Fort Worth, Texas.

Mr. Murff holds up the Susan B. Anthony List’s 2012 Pro-Life Presidential Leadership Pledge, with a big, black “No” under Romney’s name. In June, Romney said he would not sign because it was “overly broad and would have unintended consequences.” But to a conservative Christian like Murff, that meant Romney was not serious about his opposition to abortion, a view Romney came to profess only in recent years.

“Mormonism isn’t the issue,” Murff said. “Baptists have always upheld a belief in religious freedom. And if I run for office, I would hope people wouldn’t discount my candidacy because I’m an evangelical.”

But to Dee Hayden, a retiree from Newport News, Va., Mormonism is an issue. She doesn’t believe Romney’s faith would affect how he governed, but she’s afraid his election would boost Mormonism. “If he’s elected, that would bring notice to the church,” she says.

Ms. Hayden says she’d vote for Romney if he got the GOP nomination, but would not be willing to go door to door for him, even though she plans to get involved in Virginia’s Senate race.

Her comment echoes the view of Jeffress from the day before, when he predicted to reporters that the nomination of Romney would lead to Obama’s reelection. In 2008, he said, Evangelical voters stayed home rather than voted for Republican nominee John McCain, handing the election to Obama.

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