NEW YORK — Mitt Romney is starting to open up a bit more about his lifelong commitment to Mormonism and his lay leadership in the church, following pleas from backers who say that talking about his faith could help him overcome his struggles to connect with voters.
"Who shares your values?" a recent Romney ad asked – suggesting that the Republican presidential candidate was the answer. "When religious freedom is threatened, who do you want to stand with?"
The commercial was the start of a broader Romney effort to emphasize values and religion as he courts undecided voters – in a nation where most people say they want a president with strong religious beliefs – to compete with President Barack Obama in a race that polls show is close. Romney invited reporters to Mormon chapel services with his family last Sunday in New Hampshire. And he has asked a fellow Mormon to give an invocation before he addresses the Republican National Convention next week.
Romney is the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major political party, and highlighting his faith carries risks, given that many Americans view Mormonism skeptically.
Even so, a small group of supporters and Republicans have long said the benefits could outweigh the drawbacks. They contend that Romney, whose attempts to reach voters on a personal level often fall flat, could help people get to know him better by highlighting this core part of his life.
Michael Gerson, who was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, wrote that Romney could "inject some authenticity_ or at least some personality – into his campaign" by talking about his faith. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of people who know that Romney is Mormon are comfortable with his religion or don't consider it a concern.
Philip Barlow, a Mormon historian at Utah State University who worked alongside Romney when he was bishop in Belmont, Mass., said that trying to understand Romney without Mormonism would be like "watching a football game with half the players invisible."
"It's an essential strain to know, but it's so easily caricatured, more easily than the influence of his schooling and his family," Barlow said.
Religion – and specifically his decades of involvement in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – has shaped every aspect of Romney's life, from his family to his decades in private business and his political career. The former Massachusetts governor is from a prominent Mormon family, has donated millions to his church and its charities, and has volunteered countless hours to the Mormon community and others.
Yet, Romney has never been comfortable talking about his faith, and he has spoken only in the broadest terms about religion. His reticence has been understandable even though he's never explained it. Americans generally know little about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and often what they do know comes from critics. Every candidate, no matter his or her faith, has to weigh just how much to talk about God.
If a candidate goes overboard, "a lot of voters who are undecided could end up staying home," said John Green, director of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute for Applied Politics. Nineteen percent of respondents who know Romney is Mormon told Pew they're uncomfortable with his faith.
So Romney is treading carefully.
In a commencement address earlier this year at Liberty University, the evangelical school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Romney referred to "people of different faiths, like yours and mine, `' but he never used the word Mormon. He also never talked about Mormonism when he quoted the Apostle Paul and spoke of the "comfort of a living God" in a statement of sympathy to the victims of the Aurora, Colo., shooting rampage. The new ad, Romney's most direct pitch yet to religious voters, includes images of stained-glass windows and photos of the late Pope John Paul II. But it does not directly mention Romney's own faith.
"It seems that, by taking the nation to church with him, Governor Romney is letting his religion speak for itself through its actual practices. For Mormonism, that has always been the better way to respond to fears that it is a cult or somehow not Christian," said Kathleen Flake, a historian of American religion at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. "The complications come when we try to explain the why of how we worship."
With less than three months until the election, both Romney and Obama are facing increasing questions about their faith.
Both responded for a story published Tuesday in the Washington National Cathedral magazine, Cathedral Age.
Romney wrote that he was "lay pastor in my church" but didn't use the word Mormon or name the church anywhere in his answers. Asked to address uneasiness about his faith, Romney responded, "Every religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These should not be bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance."
Terryl Givens, a University of Richmond professor and Mormon scholar, argued that the theological specifics are less important than the "service, sacrifice and compassion" evident in Romney's church experience that can speak to his character and values. He said Romney could "speak compellingly about the real world problems of poverty, broken families, personal struggle and loss" he has witnessed as a church leader "that could bridge the gulf between his seemingly aloof and distant public persona and a person of genuine empathy and compassion."
Mormonism is both a belief system and an all-encompassing way of life that stresses hard work and volunteerism along with religious observance. Latter-day Saints commit from a few hours to 25 hours a week to serving in the church, in addition to their careers and family obligations. The 10 percent annual tithe they pay the church is only a start to what they're expected to donate.
Like most young Mormon men, Romney served for more than two years as an LDS missionary in France. Then, starting in the 1980s, he spent about 14 years as a volunteer Mormon leader in Massachusetts.
He was a bishop in the Boston suburb of Belmont, a job akin to the pastor of a congregation. He then served as a stake president, the top Mormon authority in his region, which meant he presided over several congregations in a district similar to a diocese. He counseled Latter-day Saints on their most personal concerns, regarding marriage, parenting, finances and faith. He worked with immigrant converts from Haiti, Cambodia and other countries.
But the former governor wasn't a clergy person in a way familiar to most Americans. Mormons have no fulltime paid clergy and instead are led by volunteer lay people, a distinction that Mormons have had to explain to outsiders more familiar with Roman Catholic or Protestant ministers.
His tenure as bishop was not without controversy. He held local authority at a time when Mormon women were seeking a greater church role, and he sometimes clashed with them over social issues and personal decisions about children and family. Romney's generosity to the church could also make him look too closely aligned with the institution.
Obama, for his part, has dramatically reduced his talk about faith on the campaign trail compared to the 2008 race.
In a Pew survey last month, only 49 percent of respondents could correctly identify Obama as Christian. A third of voters said they don't know his religion. Meanwhile, the percentage who wrongly think he's Muslim has increased since 2008, from 12 percent to 17 percent.
"There's not much I can do about it. I have a job to do as president and that does not involve convincing folks that my faith in Jesus is legitimate and real," Obama wrote in his answers to Cathedral Age. "What I can do is just keep on following Him, and serve others."