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KIM LAWTON, correspondent. In accepting the Republican nomination for president Thursday, Governor Mitt Romney talked more personally about his religion than he has so far on the campaign trail. Describing his background, Romney specifically mentioned his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
MITT ROMNEY (speaking at convention): We were Mormons and growing up in Michigan; that might have seemed unusual or out of place but I really don’t remember it that way. My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to.
LAWTON: In the 1980s, Romney was bishop for a Mormon congregation in suburban Boston. In the LDS tradition, a bishop is similar to a pastor. He oversaw other churches as well.
ROMNEY: We had remarkably vibrant and diverse congregations from all walks of life and many who were new to America. We prayed together, our kids played together and we always stood ready to help each other out in different ways. That’s how it is in America. We look to our communities, our faiths, our families for our joy, our support, in good times and bad.
LAWTON: Earlier in the evening, fellow church members talked at length about Romney’s devotion, his compassion, and his service. Grant Bennett succeeded Romney as pastor.
GRANT BENNETT (Church leader): Mitt didn’t discuss questions of theology. He found the definition of religion given by James in the New Testament to be a practical guide: “Pure religion is to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction.”
LAWTON: On Wednesday night, vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, a Roman Catholic, linked his own faith with Romney’s.
REP. PAUL RYAN: Our faiths come together in the same moral creed. We believe that in every life there is goodness; for every person, there is hope. Each one of us was made for a reason, bearing the image and likeness of the Lord of life.
LAWTON: Prior to this week, there had been few explicit references to Romney’s Mormonism from the campaign. And there has been intense debate about whether the topic should be addressed head on. According to the Pew Research Center, half of all Americans say it doesn’t bother them when politicians talk about how religious they are. Two-thirds of Americans say it is important to have a president with strong religious beliefs. And among Republicans, that number jumps to more than 80 percent.
Mark DeMoss is an evangelical and a close Romney advisor on faith issues. He says he’s been impressed by the depth of Romney’s religious beliefs.
MARK DEMOSS (Romney Advisor): This is a really rock-solid faith that I think guides this man when he wakes up until he goes to bed.
DeMOSS (in speech): I trust his character, his integrity, his moral compass. And finally I trust his values, for I’m fully convinced that they mirror my own values.
LAWTON: For the last six years, DeMoss has been trying to enlist other evangelicals to the Romney cause, including those who say they don’t want to vote for a Mormon because they don’t consider Mormons to be fellow Christians.
DeMOSS: The same people that will say that would have no problem letting a doctor of a different faith do open heart surgery on them, will fly on an airplane piloted by a pilot of a different faith and then suddenly say “But I can’t vote for a president of a different faith.”
LAWTON: Republicans need the enthusiastic support of evangelicals, who make up more than a quarter of the GOP coalition. Ralph Reed, president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, says it’s wrong to think that evangelicals would be upset because there are no Protestants on the GOP ticket.
RALPH REED (Faith & Freedom Coalition): They are very sophisticated. They understand that there are many candidates who are Jews, who are Mormons, who are Catholics who may not share their theology, who share their values, and they’ll vote for them and work for them and I think they’re going to do that for Ryan and Romney.
LAWTON: The Faith and Freedom Coalition held a high-profile rally to kick off the convention. Numerous speakers used religious issues to rally support for Romney.
NEWT GINGRICH (in speech): Unlike Barack Obama, he actually understands that the basis of our liberty is the grant from God, and that no government can come between God and man.
LAWTON: Reed outlined an ambitious strategy to target 17 million evangelicals who he says didn’t vote in the last presidential election.
REED (in speech): We going to mail them, we’re going to text them, we’re going to email them, we’re going to phone them, and if they haven’t voted by November 6, we’re going to get in the car and we’re going to drive to their house and we’re going to get them to the polls.
REED: In 2008, the Obama campaign and the left really out-hustled us and did so very badly. But not any more.
LAWTON: Another key group will be Catholics. In the last election, a slight majority of Catholics voted for President Obama. In most recent elections, the presidential candidate who won the most Catholic votes won the election. Many Catholics here at the convention said there’s a lot of pride in the fact that former altar boy Paul Ryan is the vice-presidential candidate. They say the Romney-Ryan ticket offers much that resonates with their community.
MAUREEN FERGUSON (The Catholic Association): There are certain core, fundamental issues to our faith and that is the right to life, the right to religious liberty to practice our faith free from government interference, and the defense of marriage and not the redefinition of marriage and family. These are core issues that are fundamental to our faith that we must consider as Catholics to be primary in terms of deciding for whom we’re going to vote.
LAWTON: There were several convention events to celebrate the party’s traditional stands on issues like abortion and gay marriage. But even the most socially conservative delegates acknowledged that economic issues will, and should, dominate this election.
MARGARET STOLDORF (Iowa Delegate): The moral fabric of our lives is intertwined with the economy, and I do not believe that we the people, the government needs to or feel compelled to support every living being.
RICHARD HAYES (Texas Delegate): We spend too much money, and it’s hurting us, and it’s hurting us not only personally but globally.
LAWTON: The Tea Party, which has significant religious support, had an active presence here. Various Tea Party affiliates held a unity rally at local evangelical megachurch.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: These concepts–taxed enough already, don’t spend more than what you take in and follow the Constitution–are now a part of the Republican Party platform thanks to the Tea Party.
LAWTON: Over the past several months, many in the moderate and liberal faith communities have raised concerns that cuts to social programs in Ryan’s proposed budget would hurt the poor. And some Catholics in particular, took issue with Ryan using Catholic social teaching to defend his plan. But former Ambassador to the Vatican and Catholics for Ryan co-chair Jim Nicholson defended Ryan.
AMB. JIM NICHOLSON (Catholics for Romney): I think Ryan shows a great of deal of compassion really, a real Catholic value, because of the things he wants to change so that there will be sustainability in these programs and help the people who really need it, so that we can afford it out there when our children and grandchildren are out there and some of them who will need help probably.
LAWTON: Still, many in the faith community continued issuing challenges to the Republicans’ economic plans. The progressive Jewish group Bend the Arc was in Tampa calling for the wealthy to pay more taxes.
ELLIE AXE (Bend the Arc): We’re representing a Jewish community that cares a lot about social and economic justice. And what that means for us right now is that we believe that the top two percent earners should pay their fair share in taxes.
LAWTON: Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
REV. SAMUEL RODRIGUEZ (National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference): We can’t neglect the poor. Now I’m not referencing the idea of government dependency for the rest of your life. Neither am I an advocate of perpetual entitlement. But there is a responsibility the government must take, and that responsibility is to take care of those that can’t take care of themselves.
LAWTON: Rodriguez has not endorsed either candidate, but offered the benediction on Tuesday night.
RODRIGUEZ: “Believing that God is not done with America, and America is not done with God…”
LAWTON: Both political conventions traditionally open and close each session with prayer. This year, those prayers turned unusually controversial after Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the US Catholic bishops, agreed to pray at the RNC. He later said he would also be praying at the DNC. Rodriguez says religious leaders shouldn’t shy away from appearing at events like this.
RODRIGUEZ: Our job is to contextualize a prophetic witness, to speak from truth, biblical truth, higher truth, spiritual truth. That transcends politics. With that being said, I think it’s fine if we can speak with integrity to both political parties addressing both platforms as it pertains to the concerns and the values that we hold near and dear.
LAWTON: While most of the faith-based rallying this week was Christian, Republican Jews also pledged to make more inroads in their heavily Democratic community. They say President Obama is particularly vulnerable on his policies toward Israel.
MATT BROOKS (Republican Jewish Coalition): For a segment of the Jewish community, that is a real problem and one of the reasons why we’re seeing a real deterioration of support in the Jewish community for President Obama.
LAWTON: In a tight election, outreach to every group becomes vital. But amid all the mobilization strategies, some said the larger religion story coming out of this convention should not get lost.
RODRIGUEZ: Here we are, America demonstrating to the world that we could have a Mormon president, with a Catholic vice-president, with strong evangelical support. How about that? You know you never could have written that story 20, 30, 40 years ago. But it conveys a message that religious pluralism trumps religious totalitarianism. And this is what makes America great.
LAWTON: I’m Kim Lawton in Tampa.