The newspaper headlines were relentless: “Faith could be hurdle in Romney’s White House bid”; “Romney camp consulted with Mormon leaders”; “Can a Mormon be president?” It was 2007, the run-up to the presidential election, and the subject of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s membership in the Church of Latter Day Saints had begun to distract from his upstart bid to challenge front-runner John McCain for the Republican nomination.
So he gave a speech, at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas, on the role of faith in politics. “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,” Romney said. “Given our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty, some wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate’s religion that are appropriate. I believe there are.”
Now, four years later, some religious leaders are indeed asking questions. Whether those questions are appropriate may be beside the point. Romney, now himself the front-runner, has positioned himself as the choice of the GOP establishment, the most electable Republican running for president. But his fiery Texas rival, Rick Perry, in a desperate bid to remain relevant, has deployed an ugly political maneuver: questioning Romney’s faith.
“The Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the world, has officially labeled Mormonism as a cult,” Robert Jeffress, a Texas pastor, said while introducing Perry at the Values Voters Summit in Washington D.C. last week. “I think Mitt Romney is a good moral man, but I think those of us who are born-again followers of Christ should always prefer a competent Christian to a competent non-Christian like Mitt Romney.”
Perry has said through a spokesman that he does not agree with the pastor’s remarks, but his defense of Romney — if it can be called a defense — doesn’t go much further than that. Most of Perry’s competitors have dismissed the comments as a distraction, but not all. Businessman and Tea Party favorite Herman Cain, for example, tip-toed clumsily around the issue, refusing to offer what would have been a cost-free defense of Romney when given the chance.
When asked, for example, if he thought Romney was indeed a “non-Christian,” Cain demurred. “I’m a lifelong Christian. And what that means is one of my guiding principles for the decisions I make is I start with do the right thing. I’m not getting into that controversy,” Cain said on CNN, adding of Romney, “He’s a Mormon. That much I know. I am not going to do an analysis of Mormonism versus Christianity for the sake of answering that.”
Cain’s remarks illustrate the crux of the problem rather vividly: It’s not that Mormonism is perceived by some to be a “cult,” but that Mormonism is considered inconsistent with orthodox Christianity altogether. The hysterical “cult” epithet is, after all, easy to dismiss. The clean-cut public image of Mormon leaders — missionaries, businessmen, rugged frontiersmen — belies any comparison to, say, the Branch Davidians or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And yet unease about Mormons among the general public is consistent. As Americans’ biases against other races and creeds — even Islam — have steadily eroded, some continue to remain wary of electing a Mormon president. In a June Gallup poll, 22 percent of respondents said they would be hesitant to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. And preaching from the pulpit doesn’t help, either: A Christian organization that surveyed 1,000 Baptist pastors found that three out of four considered Mormonism distinct from Christianity.
That distinction — the “otherness” of Mormonism — is perhaps what threatens Romney’s campaign, just as the perceived “otherness” of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s fueled an ugly but persistent whisper campaign of false rumors about his supposedly “secret” religious beliefs and political affiliations. Even the Protestant leaders who have denounced Jeffress’s remarks about Romney’s Mormon faith have, in a way, encouraged that Mormon “otherness.”
“I wouldn’t call it a cult but it claims to be Christian and isn’t. It’s theology is like a cult but socially and culturally it doesn’t act like a cult,” Richard Land of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention, told The Washington Post’s On Faith blog. “It’s just not Christianity. It’s another religion, like Islam.”
The comparison to Islam is highly charged, and unhelpful to a candidate seeking the nomination of a party colored by flashes of anti-Muslim sentiment and wary of the supposed creeping influence of Shariah law. In his 2007 “Faith in America” speech, Romney attempted to assuage the concerns of Protestant leaders by arguing that he, too, was a Christian, with a deep, abiding faith in Christian principles. Comparing the Book of Mormon to the Koran, as Land did, only makes Romney’s argument more difficult.
The hope for Romney, as for Obama in 2008, is that social and economic circumstances will render questions about character and faith less relevant than they normally would be in a presidential contest. Ralph Reed, a prominent conservative leader and former executive director of the Christian Coalition, said as much on Tuesday, even while acknowledging the perception of Mormonism among evangelicals as a religion distinct from Christianity.
“Look, at the risk of stating the obvious, evangelicals and the Mormon Church have deep and abiding theological differences,” Reed said on “America’s Morning News,” a talk radio program. “Having said that, I think, in a political context, evangelical voters specifically, and Americans generally, know that they’re not electing a pastor, they’re not electing a bishop, they’re not choosing the pope. What they’re doing is they’re electing the CEO of America.”