In his response to the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., Mitt Romney offered a rare glimpse into his Mormon religion – one of those public moments for the man who would be the nation’s political leader but who so far has been very private about his personal faith.
“Today we feel not only a sense of grief, but perhaps also of helplessness,” Mr. Romney said. “But there is something we can do. We can offer comfort to someone near us who is suffering or heavy-laden. And we can mourn with those who mourn in Colorado.”
“As ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life.”
Romney’s brief homily and the comment it has elicited comes at a time when many are urging him to be more public about his faith – to confront head-on any persistent bias against Mormons but also to humanize a man who can seem stiff or inauthentic in his personality.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, columnist Michael Kinsley urges Romney to be more forthcoming about his faith at a time when “the deepest reaches of any candidate's psyche are considered fair game for commentary and analysis.”
“He shouldn't be pushing his Mormonism into a corner and hoping people will forget about it,” Mr. Kinsley writes. “He should be making it a central part of his campaign. It's far and away the best thing I know about him.”
Mr. Perkins says he told Romney to be more open about his faith, particularly the values he shares with evangelical Christians.
"I think he's growing more comfortable and today's speech is further evidence of that, talking about his faith in the public arena," Perkins told CNN, referring to Romney’s comments about the Colorado shootings.
While Mr. Kirn left his family’s faith when he was a teen-ager, he retains a generally warm feeling for the generosity of many Mormons – in particular the fact that their religion “constitutes our country’s longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America, with increasingly dire social consequences.”
“Attacks on Mormonism by liberal wits and their unlikely partners in ridicule, conservative evangelical Christians, instantly filled me with resentment…,” he writes.
“As for Romney himself, the man, the person, I empathized with him and his predicament,” Kirn muses. “He no more stood for Mormonism than I did, but he was often presumed to stand for it by journalists who knew little about his faith, let alone the culture surrounding it, other than that some Americans distrusted it and certain others despised it outright.”
There’s no doubt that many Americans (especially evangelicals) are wary of if not prejudiced against the Mormon church – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
A Gallup Poll last month found that 18 percent of Americans would not vote for a well-qualified candidate who was Mormon. As with other religions that are not mainstream, the church has been the subject of mockery and pointed humor – about the undergarments that many devout Mormon men and women wear, for example.
“When confronted with raised eyebrows, Mormons often point to Jewish yarmulkes and tzitzit, or the communion dresses of Catholic children, or the turbans of Sikhs and collars of some Christian clergy,” writes Matthew Bowman, who teaches religion at Hampden-Sydney College and is the author of "The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith,” on Huffington Post. “Sacred clothing is hardly an innovation Joseph Smith came up with, and surely mockery of a yarmulke or a Sikh turban would be horrifying and verboten in most of the tolerant Western world….”
The cover of a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article titled “How the Mormons Make Money” was a cartoonish drawing of John the Baptist blessing LDS founder Joseph Smith and an assistant as he says, “And thou shalt build a shopping mall, own stock in Burger King and open a Polynesian theme park in Hawaii that shall be largely exempt from the frustrations of tax...”
Whether or not Romney’s brief remarks Friday in the wake of the Colorado shooting tragedy make any difference to his presidential campaign and the way voters perceive him and the LDS religion is hard to say.
But it could, some observers believe.
"Moments like these call for our commander in chief to act as a theologian in chief, and Romney did that today," Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University and the author of the American Bible, told CNN. "He offered a theology of comfort, compassionate conservatism if you will, consistent both with the biblical witness and with the needs of the country on tragic days like today.”