Romney Must Be Guided--Not Constrained--by Mormon Faith

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he was the first Catholic to seek the Oval Office. To win, he had to convince non-Catholic voters that he wouldn't take orders from the pope.

Now, another Massachusetts politician with an eye on the White House -- Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon -- faces a similar problem as he confronts suspicions among his party's base that his church is at best a non-Christian sect and, at worst, a cult.

A recent Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll shows what Romney may be up against. A full 37 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a Mormon candidate; only Muslim candidates, at 53 percent, had higher negative ratings.

In order to mute questions about Mormon theology and practice, Romney, like Kennedy, will have to declare his independence from his church -- but with a twist: Where voters once needed to know that a candidate's faith would remain private, many voters today, especially Christian conservatives, need to be assured that a candidate's faith will guide his decisions -- even if, as in Romney's case, they don't agree with its doctrine.

"It can't be a repeat," said Charles Haynes, a First Amendment scholar at the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va., and an expert on American religious and political history. "His Kennedy moment has to be much more nuanced. He has to speak the language of faith without being too particular" because of the differences between his faith and traditional Christianity.

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"And he has to assure the rest of the country that he can reach across these religious divisions and party lines and be president of all the people."

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, a magazine of orthodox Christian thought and opinion, also thinks Romney will have to make a Kennedyesque speech. But, he cautions, there are risks. "He runs the very great risk of alienating his Mormon supporters if he distances himself too far from the (Mormon) Church," he said. "And it could also alienate a lot of evangelicals who may see it as a waffling about religious convictions."

Mormons and traditional Christians do have their differences. Both take the Bible as Scripture, but Mormons have additional sacred texts, including "The Book of Mormon," which they believe was divinely revealed to their prophet, Joseph Smith, in 1830.

Mormons believe theirs is "the one true church," something that riles more traditional Christians. Mormons also believe God had a physical body and literally fathered all human souls and have their own view of the Trinity. Both groups believe salvation comes through Christ, but Mormons do not believe in original sin. Currently, mainline Protestants and Catholics do not recognize Mormon baptism.

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Kimberly Winston
Religion News Service
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