WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney has called himself "severely conservative" but an expert on religion and politics said the Republican presidential front-runner, a Mormon, is a product of "Mormon culture," which contains "a real strain of moderation and pragmatism" on issues like same-sex relationships, abortion and immigration.
David Campbell, co-author of "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us" and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said at a policy briefing Thursday that "the moderation you see in Romney the candidate, and I suppose in Romney the governor of Massachusetts, I would say pretty nicely reflects what you see in the public opinion polls of the rank and file of the Mormon community."
A recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report, "Mormons in America," found church members are quite conservative compared to the general public, yet Campbell said it "will come as a surprise to many audiences" that Mormons are actually moderate when it comes to many hot-button issues.
Campbell is a studious observer of the role of religion in American life and how it shapes interfaith relations, civic engagement and political beliefs. He commented that his church is "not as well integrated in its communities as it could be" and said that that has led to a "bad perception in American society" that has extended toward attitudes about Romney.
Of course, as with members of other faiths, Mormons hold a wide range of political beliefs, Campbell said. He cited Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Mormon who agrees with Romney on few policy matters, as an example. But, Campbell also noted that some of Romney's positions reflect Mormon culture.
The Mormon Church may have helped tip the balance in favor of California's Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage and has since been overturned on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but polls show a majority of LDS members favor civil unions for same-sex couples. Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, noted that while Mormons strongly reject gay marriage, very few "don't want any legal recognition of homosexual couples." That sort of nuanced approach, Campbell suggested, could help explain Romney's diverging statements on gay marriage.
Similarly, on abortion, three out of four Mormons in the Pew survey oppose it on moral grounds. But the church's official position allows exceptions for the physical and emotional health of the mother and in cases of rape. Romney, who once said abortion should be "safe and legal" has since moved to the right on the issue, in an attempt to appeal to conservatives who often play an outsized role in GOP primaries.
Mormons also tend toward moderation when it comes to immigration, Campbell said. In that area, Romney has strayed to the right of his church, which last year supported a law signed in Utah that allows undocumented immigrants to stay in the state as long as they work and didn't commit any crimes. Romney has given off mixed signals on immigration, talking tough as a candidate but pushing as Massachusetts governor for amnesty for an African immigrant who was later deported.
Campbell spoke during a Pew Center briefing on the findings of a new study on volunteerism among Mormons, conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
Ram Cnaan, director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research at Penn, said surveys of church members revealed they devote more hours to volunteer work than any other group in America. An average Latter-day Saint member spends more than 35 hours a month volunteering compared to about four hours a month for non-church members. Virtually all of those hours, 94.4 percent, are dedicated to religious volunteering within the church and to benefit other Mormons.
Cnaan also found that among groups that tithe part of their income, more Mormons said they give a full 10 percent of their income to their church than members of other denominations. Nearly 89 percent of Mormons are full-tithers, compared to just 4 percent nationally.
As The Huffington Post reported in a series last year on the charitable giving of Republican presidential candidates, Romney has given millions to charity, most in the form of tithing to the Mormon Church.
The Pew report on Mormons also found that many LDS Church members agree with Romney's belief in smaller government offering fewer services. Gregory Smith, one of the report's authors, noted that Mormons who served as missionaries and showed the highest level of religious commitment tended to oppose government intervention in social welfare matters the most.
As a young man, Romney went to France as a Mormon missionary. He later served as a church bishop in Boston.