Religious debate looms over presidential race
Along with immigration, the economy, and jobs, Mitt Romney can expect to answer questions about his religion, Mormonism, as Primary season nears. (Getty Images)
By JORDAN FABIAN
Ask any political insider these days what the top issue is for next year’s elections, and more likely than not, they would tell you it’s the economy. But an issue that’s older than money itself could also help tip the balance in 2012: religion.
At the center of attention is GOP presidential front runner Mitt Romney, who is Mormon. And the big question now facing Romney is: will voters refrain from supporting him because of his faith, which some view as a fringe religion?
Rev. Robert Jeffress, a Texas evangelical leader who backs Romney’s opponent Rick Perry, reignited the debate earlier this month when he spelled out the case against a Mormon president to a some members of the religious right. He told a confab of Christian conservative activists that Romney is not a Christian and called Mormonism a “cult.” He added that “true” Christians should vote for one of their own rather than a theological outsider.
Rev. Jeffress isn’t the only evangelical Christian who thinks this way.
A June 2011 Pew Research Center poll shows that 34 percent of white evangelical Protestants, who make up a significant portion of the Republican voting base, would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate, compared to 25 percent of the total population. Those numbers have changed little since 2007, Pew notes, the last time Romney ran for president.
“I think the anti-Mormon sentiment runs much deeper than most people are acknowledging here,” University of Oklahoma Prof. Charles Kimball, an expert on religion and politics told Univision News. “I don’t think we’ve heard the end of this. I don’t think people like Jeffress are going to change their minds.”
The debate over Mormonism isn’t a new one; Romney faced questions about his religion during the 2008 GOP primaries. In Dec. 2007, he gave a speech in which he defended his Mormon faith and sought to assure skeptics it would not influence his decision making in the Oval Office.
But this election, Romney has a much better chance of becoming the GOP nominee than he did in 2008, meaning that questions about his faith will take on an even greater importance.
Furthermore, this year, more Latinos could be attuned to the debate over religion. The Hispanic Mormon population has dramatically increased in the last decade. The number of Spanish-speaking Mormon congregations in the U.S. has jumped by 90 percent in the past 10 years to more than 700, according to a May Houston Chronicle report.
That’s in part due to Mormons proselytizing and missionary work within Latino communities, both in the U.S. and Latin America. Some members of Romney’s extended family who live in Mexico have been at the forefront of those efforts for decades. One Latino Mormon even got elected to Congress last year: Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho).
Mormonism has expanded its reach, but public skepticism of the religion continues to linger. Even if Romney is able to overcome worries among white evangelicals, it could be difficult for him to reach across the aisle to attract independents and Democrats looking for an alternative to President Obama.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last week shows that 47 percent of all adults believe that Romney’s religious beliefs will not interfere with his decisions as president, compared to 66 percent of self-described GOP primary voters.
Conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru might have summed up the Mormon conundrum best: “The political problem with [M]ormonism is some conservatives think it’s not [C]hristian and some liberals think it’s too [C]hristian.”
Other factors, however, indicate that Romney could overcome these problems.
Despite Jeffress’ attack, no candidate in the race has explicitly gone after Romney’s Mormonism, as his opponent Mike Huckabee did four years ago. But as the Christian Science Monitor points out, evangelicals still haven’t come to a consensus on a candidate as an alternative to Romney.
In fact, Romney has used the barbs against his Mormonism to put Perry on the defensive. Romney has demanded that Perry repudiate Jeffress, a demand that Perry was asked about at Tuesday’s debate.
“Our founding fathers truly understood and had an understanding of - of freedom of religion,” Perry said. “But we also are a country that is free to express our opinions. That individual expressed an opinion. I didn’t agree with it, Mitt, and I said so.”
Attacks on Romney’s Mormonism could instead backfire and make other candidates look bad to a general election audience.
“I think it’s absolutely uncalled for. One of the bedrock principles of American life is that no one is punished for their religious beliefs or lack thereof,” said former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D), now a candidate for Senate. “It’s un-American.”
Kaine talked openly about his Catholicism during his campaign for governor of Virginia in 2005, despite the fact that there had never been a Catholic governor in the history of the state. He eventually won the election.
“I thought it was perfectly fine to share my values,” Kaine said. “Americans like to hear people talk about what their values and motivations are.”
At the end of the day, issues like the economy and jobs could very well overshadow people’s opinions on Romney’s religion.
“I think the question now for many is: are you so dissatisfied with Obama that you would vote for someone in your heart of hearts don’t believe is a Christian?” Kimball asked. “The bigger question is whether people who have an animus towards Mormonism, whether they will vote at all.”
Whether religion is a deciding factor or just a sideshow remains to be seen, but one things is for sure: the issue isn’t going away.