Different Faiths, Different Visions

Romney’s comfort with organized religion keeps showing up. As does Obama’s wariness of it.

Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama cite faith as an important influence on their lives and outlooks. While this allows for common ground in the race for president, big differences – including policy positions – seem to reflect sensibilities honed in two radically different religious cultures.

In some respects, faith factors help bridge the gulf between Romney, a Mormon, and Obama, a mainline Protestant. Each says he prays daily and reads the Christian scriptures for wisdom. Both are multi-millionaires and give more than 20 percent of their incomes to charity. Neither faces allegations of infidelity or impropriety. They agree America has moral responsibilities to care for the most vulnerable and spare future generations from crushing debts.

But in many ways, they come from opposite ends of the American religious spectrum. Hence it’s not surprising that one exudes more trust in religious institutions than the other does.

Let’s review their backgrounds. Romney grew up in a Mormon churchgoing culture that vests boys with leadership responsibilities at age 12. He rose through the ranks to deacon and later bishop in a church that has no professional clergy. As a bishop in Belmont, Mass., he coordinated assistance for struggling families and counseled them on how to get back on their feet. For decades, he’s tithed to and helped lead a church which, according to Mormon historian Matthew Bowman, borrows heavily from corporate America in its governance and uses “franchising” models to grow the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints worldwide.

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By contrast, Obama comes from line of lapsed Christians and Muslims who found organized religion unconvincing or stifling. His Kenyan-born father traded Islam for atheism, according to historian David L. Holmes, author of The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama (University of Georgia Press, 2012). His mother chose secular humanism over her parents’ Methodist heritage and taught her son to see religion as a human invention to explain the mysterious.

When Obama embraced Christianity and got baptized after law school, he joined Trinity United Church of Christ, a predominantly black Chicago church with ties to the liberal United Church of Christ (UCC) denomination. He cheered Trinity’s dozens of local outreach ministries. But then as now, his attendance tended to be sporadic, Holmes says.

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G. Jeffrey MacDonald
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