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Romney's Mormonism To Be A Bigger Issue In The General Election, Say Evangelicals

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WASHINGTON -- The loudest objections to Mitt Romney's Mormonism have not yet been raised, according to evangelical leaders and conservatives.

One month ago, an attack on Romney's faith by a Texas pastor supporting Texas Gov. Rick Perry renewed talk that Romney, who was a high-ranking official in the Mormon church from 1981 to 1994, would lose large chunks of the evangelical vote because of his faith.

That may prove true in Iowa, the first state in the Republican presidential primary process. And Romney's faith does give many protestants pause. But polls, and evangelical leaders, tell another story: If the former Massachusetts governor is the Republican nominee, his faith may be attacked and questioned more aggressively by liberals in the general election than it has been by conservatives in the primary.

"I assume that given the early signs of what an Obama campaign is going to look like, with this class warfare stuff, that every tactic imaginable will be used by the Obama campaign, including attacking the religion of his opponent," said Gary Bauer, president of American Values and a long time leader in the social conservative movement.

Other prominent evangelical leaders told The Huffington Post that they believe Romney will be ambushed by the press.

"The major networks are heavily invested in Barack Obama's reelection," said Richard Land, a leader with the Southern Baptist Convention who heads its ethics and religious liberty commission.

"And they're all going to run detailed specials, now that we have the first Mormon nominee for president: 'What does the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints believe?' And they're going to go into all the beliefs of Mormonism, hoping to scare the 40 percent of independents who make up the decisive vote in the electorate to not vote for someone who believes such things."

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, agreed.

"I think the media, and the American public via the media, will know all they want to know about Mormonism," Perkins said. "I think the left-leaning media that is sympathetic to the president will try to drive a wedge deeper between him and social conservatives."

The flip side of these predictions, if they come true, is that these evangelical leaders, along with pastors across the country, would be put in the unlikely position of defending a Mormon candidate who many of them have eyed with deep suspicion for years.

"Do not underestimate the unique ability of Barack Obama to unify social conservatives. It's unique," said Land. "He's the most liberal man to ever be in the White House."

Michael Gerson, former White House speechwriter for George W. Bush, wrote on Oct. 3 that "if Romney looks like the likely nominee, mainstream religious conservatives are more likely to build bridges than torch them."

"But even though conservative objections to Romney's Mormonism are likely to diminish, criticism by secular liberals is likely to blossom," Gerson wrote.

The Obama campaign said they would take no part in any criticism of Romney's religious beliefs.

"Attacking a candidate's religion is out of bounds, and our campaign will not engage in it," Ben Labolt, the spokesman for Obama's reelection campaign, told HuffPost.

But many conservatives saw references by unnamed Obama officials to Romney as "weird" over the summer as a way of playing the religion card from the bottom of the deck, and believed it was an indicator of what was to come. Top Romney backers are certain that the Republican's religion will be a major target if he is the nominee.

And there is a good reason to believe this will be the case. Conservative Christians have issues with Mormons on theological grounds, but are coming to the realization that they share public policy goals for the most part. On the other hand, the fight over gay marriage in California -- where Mormons played a big role in overturning the state Supreme Court's decision to legalize it -- demonstrated to liberals that the Latter Day Saints are not their allies in the political arena.

Polls have shown this shift is taking place. The Pew Research Center for People and the Press reported in May that "more Democrats than Republicans say they would be less likely to support a Mormon candidate."

"Liberal Democrats stand out, with 41 percent saying they would be less likely to support a Mormon candidate. Only about a quarter or fewer in other groups say this," the Pew report stated.

A Gallup poll in June found 27 percent of Democrats said they "would not support a Mormon for president," while 20 percent of Republicans and Independents said the same.

Similarly, an Oct. 11 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reported that 66 percent of GOP primary voters are "comfortable with Mitt Romney and that his religious beliefs will not interfere with his decisions as president," while 13 percent did "not feel comfortable with Mitt Romney and worry his religious beliefs will interfere with his decisions as president."

But when the pool of respondents was broadened beyond Republicans to include all voters, the number of voters "comfortable" with Romney went down 19 points to 47 percent, and the number of people not comfortable with him went up to 21 percent.

Since Rev. Robert Jeffress, the Perry supporter who pastors the biggest Baptist congregation in Texas, reignited the Mormon issue on Oct. 7 by calling Mormonism a "cult," the response from conservative and Christian pundits generally has been one of condemnation.

"What Robert Jeffress has done -- quite unwillingly, I'm sure -- is to damage his own Christian witness by weighing in on politics with simplistic and unreflective comments," wrote Peter Wehner, a former White House adviser to President George W. Bush.

The issue of Romney's faith has been less vigorously discussed on the left. But as far back as 2006, Slate's Jacob Weisberg wrote a column saying he opposed Romney because of his faith, in large part because he believed the religion's founder, Joseph Smith, was "an obvious con man."

"I wouldn't vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism," he said.

Weisberg predicted that if Romney was the GOP nominee in 2008, his "religion will become an issue with moderate and secular voters -- and rightly so."

More recently, columns from outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens and from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd have delved into the stranger aspects of the Mormon faith and practice, some of them real, some not.

Dowd ran through a laundry list of things she found odd or objectionable about Mormonism in an Oct. 19 column: "Magic underwear. Baptizing dead people. Celestial marriages. Private planets. Racism. Polygamy."

Many Mormons do in fact wear special underwear, though they do not call it "magic." Romney has never disclosed whether he wears the undergarments, though he has been asked. Posthumous baptism is done by proxy, with a person standing in for the deceased. Celestial marriage is a theological term for the belief that a couple's relationship continues in the afterlife. The idea of private planets appears to be something of an urban legend about the Mormon faith.

As for race, the Mormon Church did not allow black men to be ordained as priests in the church until 1978. And polygamy was practiced officially by the church during the second half of the 19th century, but it has been disavowed by the church since 1890.

John Aravosis, a liberal blogger at Americablog, spotlighted the 2009 discovery that unknown Mormons performed a posthumous proxy baptism for President Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, in June 2008, and that others in the church have done the same for deceased Holocaust victims.

"It's pretty aggressively nasty duplicitous stuff," Aravosis wrote on Oct. 17.

Hitchens' Oct. 17 column was headlined: "Romney's Mormon Problem: Mitt Romney and the weird and sinister beliefs of Mormonism."

Hitchens said the 1978 decision to admit black men as priests was recent enough "to cast serious doubt on the sincerity of their change of heart."

It is this -- the race issue -- that holds potent and explosive potential for Democratic attacks on Romney if he is chosen by Republicans to run against the first black president in U.S. history. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour did not run for president in large part because of the way he and close advisers believed he would have been cast as a racist by Democrats.

But a prominent religious leader of the progressive left, Rev. Jim Wallis, disavowed such tactics and specifically called out Hitchens for being "as bad a secular fundamentalist as Jerry Falwell or the Ayatollah Khomeini are bad religious fundamentalists."

"He is a hostile, vitriolic, hateful person when it comes to people of faith," Wallis told HuffPost. "He is intellectually completely ignorant of religion."

Wallis said he opposes Romney on policy grounds.

"What kind of underwear Mitt Romney wears is a lot less important to us than what his moral compass is and what his policy agenda is," Wallis said. "He doesn't show any real concern for the people Jesus talked most about, the least of these. I don't see any ever mention of poor, vulnerable oppressed people. He's basically a candidate for -- he's a Wall Street candidate."

It won't just be atheists like Hitchens speaking out against Mormonism, however. Gays are increasingly incensed by Mormons' active opposition to gay marriage laws, as evidenced by the California fight, in which a measure overturning a state Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage was approved by 7 million Californians and opposed by 6.4 million voters.

"You have gays who have been the victims of Mormon-financed legislative gay-bashing for a good two decades," Aravosis, who is openly gay, told HuffPost in an e-mail. "As for gays and Jews, I think it's difficult to ignore Mitt Romney's religion when his religion shows absolutely no interest in ignoring us."

None of this is to say Mormonism is no longer an issue in the primary. Many evangelicals and protestants, generally speaking, are still troubled or at least puzzled by the foreign aspects of the Mormon faith.

"One of the issues for Mormonism is that it is now being discussed in public in a way that will bring a great deal of attention to Mormon beliefs and practices," Rev. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in an interview. "I have to believe that Americans are going to find many of those beliefs absolutely bizarre and strange."

Church leaders in Salt Lake City, Utah, have responded by expanding an ad campaign begun last year in nine cities to 12 more. The ads point to a website filled with three- and four-minute video profiles of everyday Americans, often minorities and young, attractive people, that end with them saying, "I am a Mormon." The point is clearly to try and demystify the faith.

As their common cause with Mormons on policy and politics has become more clear to evangelical leaders, it is pushing theological and ecclesiological issues to the back burner.

"The beliefs of a particular faith are relevant to the extent that they would affect public policy," Bauer said. "If Mormonism taught that marriage was something other than a man and a woman, then I would be troubled by a Mormon candidate. But their faith is quite the opposite."

Chuck Colson, a former Nixon White House official who went to prison for his role in the Watergate scandal and is now head of Prison Fellowship Ministries, wrote on Oct. 17: "Is the Mormon faith Christian? No. It is not. There are significant and un-reconciled doctrinal differences between Mormonism and Christianity, like the sole sufficiency of Christ and the exclusivity of the Bible."

"Having said that, there may be no other group of people I appreciate more as co-belligerents than the Mormons," Colson said. "They are stalwarts on life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty issues."

In fact, the problem for Romney with many conservatives and evangelicals, Land said, is that they do not think he has been "Mormon enough" because of his flip-flops on abortion and gay marriage in particular.

"That's what's more of a challenge for Mitt Romney," said Perkins. "His past positions on many of these issues are not where most Mormons are. That's more of a level of discomfort."

Still, large swaths of evangelicals in the next few months will hear details about the Mormon church and Romney's prominent role in it. Whether it's the first time they've heard it or not, many will want further explanation, especially if Romney is the nominee, said Mohler.

"I think the [President John F.] Kennedy route is disastrous. He said more or less I'm a Catholic but it won't make any difference," said Mohler. "I don't think that's an appropriate response. That basically means I'm not that committed to my own world view."

"He needs to speak about how his own faith commitments and his own worldview will inform his own public policy," Mohler said.

But Romney already did that in 2007, and there is little chance he will do so again. Romney spoke at the George H.W. Bush Library in College Station, Texas -- home of Perry's alma mater, Texas A&M University -- at this very same point in the primary four years ago.

"It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions," Romney said then. "And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter -- on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course."

Even if the Mormon issue heats up this time, Romney is likely to just point to that speech and keep talking about the economy. Some Romney advisers believe the Republican could use attacks on his faith to his advantage in the general election by casting the Democrats as petty and unfocused on jobs.

Remaining silent about his faith, however, could cost him in Iowa. The state is either a gleaming opportunity or a deadly trap for Romney. If he were to win Iowa, Romney would nearly have the race sewn up, given his advantage in New Hampshire, which follows Iowa. And the conservative voters in Iowa are divided among six candidates, giving Romney a very real chance of winning in the Hawkeye State.

But Romney will be leery of being burned by Iowans again like he was in 2008, when he received 25 percent in the caucuses -- which begin the primary voting process -- but came in second to Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher who spent far less money and had less organization but who still won with 34 percent.

Romney has polled in the low 20s for a long time now, and the evangelical and conservative voters are split in Iowa this time among Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Perry.

The concern for Romney would be that he might increase his effort in Iowa from the minimalist approach he's taken so far -- which lessens the impact of a loss on his overall chances -- at the very same time that Iowans are deciding he is not conservative or Christian enough, and consolidating around someone like Perry, who has the money to blanket the airwaves for much of the next two months ahead of the Jan. 3 caucuses.

Interviews with Iowans at Perry events in the northwest -- the most conservative part of the state -- in early October showed that Romney's faith is on their minds.

"It bothers me. I'm a Christian. I know he believes differently than I do," said Terry Dykstra, 53, who runs an excavation business in Orange City, Iowa, and said he will not vote for Romney because he is a Mormon.

Kevin DeWeerd, a 50-year-old truck driver who had struck up a conversation with Dykstra, was of a different mind.

"I don't think it's a real issue. It's a big world," DeWeerd said.

Anita Bomgaars, a 56-year-old teacher, real estate broker, independent film producer and mother of three, is the type of voter that will likely decide whether Romney can win Iowa or not.

Bomgaars told HuffPost that Romney's faith "might be" an issue for her, but that she wanted to hear more from Romney about it.

"I think Mormonism has evolved," Bomgaars said. "I would really like to hear what Romney and his wife believe their faith is about. I still don't feel like he's been up front about what he believes."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly spelled John Aravosis' last name.

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