Massachusetts Gov. W. Mitt Romney, mulling a 2008 run for president, should be a dream candidate for many in the Republican Party.
Popular in his home state and noted as a charming and articulate speaker, Romney, 58, sprung onto the national stage when he oversaw the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, turning what was a potential debt-ridden disaster into a stunning success.
From there, he garnered 50% of the vote in his initial run for governor, in a state dominated by Democrats. Romney discovered upon taking office a $650 million deficit in fiscal 2003 and an anticipated one of $3 billion in fiscal 2004. Romney balanced the 2003 budget, and he finished 2004 with a $700 million surplus.
Romney, the valedictorian of his class at Brigham Young University, is noted as a dedicated family man who does not smoke or drink and who has been a church leader. He is a governor who personally opposes abortion, but would not block a woman’s right to choose. He supports benefits for gay couples, but has pushed for a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
In theory, Romney’s conservative pedigree should appeal to the same majority that swept George W. Bush to narrow victories in 2000 and 2004. But, as in Massachusetts in 2002, Romney also should have cross-over appeal to attract conservative Democrats and independents.
But many believe he has virtually no chance of ever capturing the party’s nomination.
Here’s the problem: Romney is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons.
The Southern Baptist Convention website categorizes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a “cult” that is “radically” different from historic, biblical Christianity. A faith guide issued by the influential Christian right group Focus on the Family declares that “God cannot be identified . . . with the Mormon religion’s notion of god.” The Focus on the Family website features a guide for teaching Christianity to children that lumps Mormons in with pagan worship. And each year, evangelical organizers behind the National Day of Prayer bar Mormons from speaking at their proceedings.
Given that the South has become a GOP stronghold in recent presidential races, many, including Romney himself, believe Romney’s religion would emerge as an issue there should he seek to become the 44th president.
We’re nearly five decades past John F. Kennedy breaking the Protestant barrier, as the nation’s first Catholic president. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), an orthodox Jew, was accepted by most as Al Gore’s vice presidential nominee in 2000. John Kerry (D-MA), a Catholic, was the Democratic nominee in 2004. But the Religious Right, apparently, hasn’t caught up completely.
Romney suggested, in a June interview with conservative magazine Weekly Standard, that his religion could pose a problem for some:
“This is a nation that will always welcome people of faith, and my party, in particular, will welcome people of faith,” Romney said. “I think if you said, ‘Look, we have a candidate for you, and you can know nothing about this person, except [his] religion, that’s the only thing that you can know, this person is a Mormon, but that’s all you can know. Do you want [him] as president?’ Well my guess is with all of the misunderstanding and lack of understanding and differences between one religion and another, that I think a lot of people would say, ‘Gosh, I am not sure that that makes me feel real comfortable.‘”
“I think it likely will matter,” Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, told Newhouse Newspapers. “I think he will have to be very savvy and skillful in talking with evangelicals, and I don’t know what experience he has doing that. I think he’s got a hard row to hoe.”
The Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a former Pennsylvania congressman, believes Romney’s faith will be an issue he will have to deal with should he run for president.
“I don’t think it’s a death sentence for a candidate, or a super big obstacle,” Edgar told Newhouse. “I do think that people who express what their faith tradition is have to be authentic about expressing it.”
“It would be extraordinarily hard for mainline denomination people in the South to openly and strongly politick or be involved in a Mormon’s run for office,” Bobby Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination and a fixture of the Christian right, told the Boston Globe.
One evangelical leader offered the Weekly Standard a succinct take on whether Romney’s faith would hurt him in the primaries: “Against Giuliani, no. Against Frist, yes. Against [Rick] Santorum, yes. Against Arnold [Schwarzenegger, who is ineligible], no.”
Echoing that thought was Richard Land, who runs public affairs for the Southern Baptist Convention. He told the Globe that if Romney “were running against Bill Frist or George Allen — if [evangelical voters] have a choice between a social conservative who is an evangelical or a social conservative who is a Mormon — most are going to choose a social conservative who is an evangelical.”
Romney’s late father, George, who was also Mormon, ran for president in 1968 when he was the governor of Michigan. He dropped out before the primaries. At the time, Gallup found that 17 percent of respondents would not vote for a Mormon for president, even if their party “nominated a generally well-qualified person” of the faith.
Have times changed? No.
A Gallup Poll in February 1999 that repeated the question again found 17 percent of respondents saying they would not vote for a Mormon.
Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who briefly ran for president in 2000, thought that he could overcome the bias against Mormons within his party. He was wrong.
As recounted by The Hill:
Implying that prejudice was stronger than he had realized, Hatch popped off (prior to the Iowa Caucus), saying,“I am not going to take any crap from anybody about my religion.” The charge that seemed to irritate Hatch the most was that Mormons are not Christians. “I take my Christian faith very seriously,” protested the annoyed candidate.
Romney is doing his part to reach out to the Religious Right, reports the Globe.
Last March, the governor invited Southern California evangelical pastor Rick Warren to breakfast in Cambridge after reading his bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life. Romney has also appeared on syndicated radio host Hugh Hewitt’s show, a megaphone to religious conservatives, three times in the past three months.
Will it be enough to overcome religious prejudice within his party?
Don’t bet the farm on a President Romney.
This article first appeared at Journalists Against Bush’s B.S.