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Evangelicals may never take Romney on faith

A defense of religious liberty may not quell doubts about his beliefs.

December 07, 2007|Miguel Bustillo, Stephanie Simon and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS — The glowing reviews began tumbling in at once:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's speech on faith was powerful and convincing, analysts said -- sincere, effective, hit all the right notes.

But will it help Romney, a Mormon, win over the key voting bloc of conservative Christians?

The broad consensus: probably not.

"I'm not sure it's going to work for evangelical voters," said Collin Hansen, editor-at-large at the evangelical monthly Christianity Today. "Pure and simple, there are very dramatic differences" between the Mormon faith and other Christian traditions. "People wonder, does he really believe that -- and if so, can I really trust him?"

For more than a year, Romney and his strategists discussed the merits of giving a speech to formally address his faith. The matter grew more pressing in just the last two weeks, when Romney's once-formidable lead in Iowa's Republican caucuses evaporated as voters -- especially conservative Christians -- surged toward candidate Mike Huckabee, a onetime Baptist preacher. Huckabee also is gaining momentum in other states with early presidential contests.

So on Thursday morning, Romney stepped to the podium at the George Bush Presidential Library here to deliver an impassioned defense of religious liberties.

The speech drew inevitable comparisons with John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech about his Catholic faith. At one point, Romney even echoed Kennedy's words. Flanked by American flags, he pledged that he would not let his church dictate his policies.

"I am an American running for president," he said. "I do not define my candidacy by my religion."

But Romney also vowed that he would stand proudly by his beliefs as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Some believe that such a confession will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it," Romney said. "But I think they underestimate the American people."

Romney went on to vigorously defend the role of faith in public life. He described America as a nation under God, declared that history books should acknowledge "the creator," and insisted that judges must respect "the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests." He even expressed support for "nativity scenes and menorahs in public places."

Those are all issues that resonate well with evangelical voters.

"He used code words, if you will, that made the point: 'Hey, I get your message,' " said Harry Jackson Jr., senior pastor of a black evangelical mega-church outside Washington.

Jackson also was pleased to hear Romney speak so emotionally about the importance of faith in his life.

"Sometimes you can get the feeling that [he's a] used-car salesman instead of someone with a heart. He made himself more touchable, more approachable, with this speech," said Jackson, who has not committed to a candidate.

But for all his admiration, Jackson said he was not sure the speech would give Romney much of a bounce in the polls. Other religious leaders and political analysts agreed.

Few voters, they said, truly worried that Romney would take orders from Salt Lake City if elected -- that he'd "pick up the phone and call some 90-year-old Mormon elder to ask what to do on immigration," said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

The concerns about his faith are vaguer -- but may run far deeper.

Some Christians are appalled at the Mormon conception of God as having a physical body and a wife. In their view, Mormons don't worship the one true God -- so they fear that, as president, Romney would not benefit from divine guidance.

At a Huckabee campaign event a few weeks ago, voter Glenda Gehrke, 63, voiced that concern about Romney, asking: "Will his prayers even get through?"

Others consider Mormonism a cult and worry that a Mormon president would give the fast-growing faith more legitimacy in the U.S. and around the world.

A poll last month by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found that 50% of voters surveyed weren't ready to elect a Mormon president -- about double the number who said they were not prepared to elect a woman or an African American.

Other national polls have found similar skepticism about electing a Mormon president, though when a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll asked about Romney in particular, 73% of Republican voters said his faith would make no difference in their decision.

Romney did not explain any details of Mormon theology (and used the word "Mormon" only once in his 20-minute speech). He also did not take questions from the audience of 300 invited guests.

That lack of specificity disappointed Iowa voter Dan Nicholson, who has not yet settled on a candidate.

"Anybody who was prejudiced against Mormons, I don't think he made any inroads in that group," said Nicholson, 69, who is Catholic. "A lot of people don't understand what Mormonism is about. Anytime you don't understand something, you're always suspicious."

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