Romney turns focus to faith

GOP contender aims to ease concerns over his Mormonism

December 06, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN REPORTER

When Mitt Romney speaks on religion tonight, it is people like the Rev. Jason Poling he is going to have to reach.

Though he has de-emphasized politics since becoming pastor of the evangelical New Hope Community Church in Pikesville five years ago, Poling has been an active Republican for much of his life.

And he has a major problem with the former Massachusetts governor now running for that party's presidential nomination: Romney is a Mormon.

"Mormonism is not a Christian religion," Poling says succinctly. "It is not aligned with historic orthodox Christian beliefs."

Romney, who will speak on "Faith in America" in College Station, Texas, has spent a great deal of money trying to win next month's Iowa caucuses but has suddenly found himself in a race with the low-budget campaign of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The move of evangelicals to the side of Huckabee, a Baptist minister, is considered the major reason.

Polls make clear that Romney does have a problem.

"Religion is both a strength and a potential weakness for Romney," says Gregory Smith, a research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which conducted a survey on the issue in August.

"More than any other candidate, Romney is viewed as very religious, and he stands to gain from that, but that is limited by concerns people express about Mormons," he says.

The Pew survey shows that 25 percent of the public would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate. That figure rises to 36 percent among white evangelical Christians such as Poling.

Romney has sought to lower expectations for his address, saying it will not confront the Mormon issue directly but rather be a general talk about the country's "common heritage" of faith.

John F. Kennedy had to address religion during the 1960 campaign when his Catholicism became an issue.

But when Romney's father George, one-time Michigan governor, made a bid for the Republican nomination in 1968, his Mormon religion was not a factor.

"The major difference between 1968 and now is that evangelical Christians are a major, if not the major, constituency of the Republican Party," says Geoffrey Layman, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park who studies the issue of religion and politics.

"In order to win the Republican nomination, at least the conventional wisdom is that one has to appeal to the evangelicals," Layman says. "Evangelicals think Mormons are members of a cult, not Christians. And I think that is fairly salient to evangelicals in a way it is not for mainline Protestants or Catholics."

The Pew poll numbers support that point. Only 16 percent of white mainline Protestants said they were less likely to vote for a Mormon, less than half the 36 percent of evangelicals.

That number includes people such as Poling. He points out that while Mormons express belief in God, his son Jesus and the Holy Spirit, they do not believe they are part of the Trinity - three manifestations of the same being - but instead are three distinct beings belonging to what Mormons call the Godhead.

"The Trinity is non-negotiable," Poling says.

Despite such differences, Mormons believe they are Christians. The official name of the religion is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their statements of belief make clear that Jesus is regarded as the son of God and the savior of mankind.

Nevertheless, many of their beliefs run counter to traditional Christian doctrine. Mormons would say it is those traditional Christians who are in the wrong.

Mormons believe that the Christian Church was essentially lost in the centuries when most denominations were being founded - between the death of Christ and his Apostles and about 1820, when a man named Joseph Smith, living in New York state, had a vision of Christ and later a visitation from an angel who gave him the text of the Book of Mormon, an additional book in the Mormon Bible that lays out the tenets of the religion.

Poling, who says he would have no problem supporting a Jewish or Catholic candidate, has difficulty with this.

"They claim to be the only Christian religion, that no one who isn't a Mormon can be a Christian," he says. "Right there, that is problematic."

Smith and his successors who are presidents of the church are called prophets. Mormons believe they speak with divine authority - again, something that runs counter to traditional Christian doctrine.

This authority has allowed the church to change some of its most controversial positions.

The church's fourth president, Wilfred Woodruff, announced in 1890 that polygamy, then widely practiced by Mormons - including Romney's great-grandparents - was against church teachings, helping to pave the way for Utah's statehood in 1896.

A similar presidential statement in 1978 erased a long-standing prohibition against blacks' becoming Mormon priests.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.