Mitt Romney addresses a touchy subject about his religion

Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer says Mitt Romney’s family 'came from a polygamy commune in Mexico.' That’s not the whole story about Romney’s Mormon ancestors, but it forces him to talk about his religion, which he’d rather not do.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally in Tempe, Ariz., Friday, April 20, 2012.

Mitt Romney’s religion, a subject he prefers not to talk about so far in the 2012 presidential campaign, inevitably comes up in political discourse. It did again this week in a way that forced him to respond.

Discussing the likely Republican presidential nominee's difficulty in attracting Latino voters, Montana's Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer, pointed out that Romney’s family “came from a polygamy commune in Mexico.”

Mr. Romney is Mormon, descended from English converts to Mormonism who immigrated to the United States in the 19th century. The denomination (also known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) encouraged polygamy or the taking of “plural wives” by Mormon men until the practice was officially ended in 1890.

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At a time when Mormonism was under attack in the United States, resulting in state and federal legislation against polygamy, some Mormon groups – including Romney’s ancestors – fled to Mexico where they were able to continue the practice until the Mexican Revolution forced them to return to the United States.

As detailed in “The Real Mitt Romney” by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman of The Boston Globe, the former Massachusetts governor’s early ancestors did practice polygamy in North America, but that did not include his grandfather’s family in the United States or Mexico.

Gov. Schweitzer told the Daily Beast it was “ironic” that Romney could not use the fact that his father (George Romney, who became governor of Michigan and ran for president) was born in Mexico to attract Latino voters.

“I am not alleging by any stretch that Romney is a polygamist and approves of [the] polygamy lifestyle, but his father was born into [a] polygamy commune in Mexico,” Schweitzer said, also noting that even a distant connection with polygamy probably would not sit well with women voters – another group Romney is seeking to attract.

To those voters wary of Romney’s religion (including some evangelical Christians), it does not help the candidate that small offshoot groups disavowed by the church continue to practice – and sometimes be prosecuted for – polygamy in the Southwest.

Responding to Gov. Schweitzer’s comment, Romney told Fox News: "My dad's dad was not a polygamist. My dad grew up in a family with a mom and a dad and a few brothers and one sister."

"They lived in Mexico and lived a very nice life there from what I understand and then when [my father] was 5 or 6 years old there was a revolution in Mexico,” he said. “They escaped…. My dad had a very tough upbringing."

Conservatives have criticized Schweitzer for bringing up Romney’s religion in this way, pointing out that President Obama’s Kenyan father was married to more than one woman at a time.

“Both Romney’s parents and grandparents were monogamous, so tying him to the polygamous practices of his great-grandparents is a nasty piece of business and no more relevant to the 2012 campaign than an investigation into the marital practices of President Obama’s ancestors in Kenya,” writes Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary magazine.

In response to Governor Schweitzer’s comments, Obama campaign spokesperson Lis Smith said “Attacking a candidate's religion is out of bounds, and our campaign will not engage in it, and we don’t think others should either.”

Asked by Fox News to respond to Romney’s explanation of his family background, Schweitzer spokesman Eric Stern issued the following statement:

"The Governor meant what he said, precisely. It has nothing to do with Romney's faith or his Church. Rather, he was describing the strategic conundrum that Romney faces: that Romney is in serious trouble with Hispanic voters because he took an ultra-right-wing position on immigration during the primary; that to reach out to Hispanic voters, Romney would probably like to be able to discuss the fact that his father was born in Mexico; but, that this is awkward for Romney to discuss, because it requires discussing, as well, the fact that his father was born into a polygamy colony."

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