Concerns About Romney’s Mormonism Seem to Have Died Down but Haven’t Gone Away

Mitt RomneyThe second time around, the shock has worn off.

The prospect of a Mormon president appears
to be less alien to South Carolina Republicans who are giving Mitt
Romney a second look after his failed White House bid in 2008.

Still, worries about
his faith persist in a state where one pastor jokes there are “more
Baptists than people.” Voters preparing for the Jan. 21 presidential
primary are weighing whether Romney’s religion should matter so much
when they cannot pay their bills and a Democrat many distrust occupies
the White House.

“Although Romney’s faith is
still a matter of some discussion, it is less of a political problem for
him than it was in 2008,” said Jim Guth, a political scientist at
Furman University in Greenville, in South Carolina’s conservative
upstate. “Most Republicans have a generally positive view of Romney,
even evangelical Christians.”

Four years ago,
the Romney campaign directly took on suspicion about The Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints. Conservative Christians, including
Protestants and Roman Catholics, do not consider Mormons to be
Christian, although Mormons strongly do.

former Massachusetts governor courted evangelical pastors and formed a
national faith-and-values steering committee. Romney gave a major 2007
speech in Texas, modeled on John F. Kennedy’s pivotal 1960 address on
Catholicism, that promised “no authorities of my church or of any other
church for that matter” would influence his policies.

This time, Romney has no formal religion committee and rarely mentions his faith unless asked.

an appearance Thursday in a motorcycle dealership in Greer, he said the
election was about “the soul of America” and described the national
debt as a moral issue. He called “America the Beautiful” a “national
hymn.” (The music was, in fact, originally composed by a church organist
for a hymn.)

The only direct mention of
religion at the event came from the South Carolina state treasurer,
Curtis Loftis. In a speech introducing Romney, Loftis noted that he was a

By contrast, at South Carolina
barbecue joints and churches, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been giving what
evangelicals call personal testimony of how he accepted Christ at age

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a
social conservative and Roman Catholic who’s sometimes mistaken for an
evangelical Protestant, recently asked an audience in Greenville to pray
for his campaign.

“It’s a tough battle every day out there,” Santorum said. “And we need that hedge of protection.”

Appeals like these are almost expected in a state where Christianity is so much part of daily life.

Romney arrived in Columbia for the first time since his New Hampshire
primary victory, churches around the state were welcoming families for
the weekly food, fellowship and Bible study that is a Wednesday night
tradition in evangelical churches throughout the South.

2008, 60 percent of Republican voters in the South Carolina primary
identified themselves as born-again Christians, according to exit polls.

the focus on religion in this state, if not the skepticism about
Romney’s faith, the second question from the audience at a town
hall-style event in Hilton Head on Friday was whether he believes “in
the divine saving grace of Jesus Christ?” His answer: “Yes, I do.”

Smith, president of the Palmetto Family Council, a conservative policy
group based in Columbia, said the state “is sort of an
evangelical-permeated culture.”

Smith said
South Carolina “is strongly influenced by very large churches. Even for
those who just go to church for the ritual of it, the values people
preach have become part of people’s worldview.”

Romney campaign is making a play for these votes with a focus on
values, according to Mark DeMoss, a senior adviser to Romney and veteran
public relations executive who represents evangelical pastors and

The campaign released a new radio
ad Friday that asserts, “Today Christian conservatives are supporting
Mitt Romney because he shares their values: the sanctity of life, the
sacredness of marriage and the importance of the family.”

glossy brochure that began arriving in South Carolina mailboxes last
weekend noting Romney has been a lifelong member of the same church. It
didn’t say which one. The detail also can read as a dig at former House
Speaker Newt Gingrich, who left Lutheranism and converted to Southern
Baptist, then Catholic.

The underlying message
of Romney’s generic faith language is “I’m just like you,” said John
Green, a specialist in religion and politics at the University of Akron,

“It’s kind of like an inoculation to
say, `I’m good on these values. Now let’s talk about the economy,'”
Green said. “He wants to get past a potential criticism.”

Romney has acknowledged that there are some votes he’ll never win.

the upstate city of Easley, the Rev. Brad Atkins, president of the
South Carolina General Baptist Convention, has posted an email exchange
on his church website with a local reporter on his objections to the LDS

“Romney’s Mormonism will be more a
cause of concern than Gingrich’s infidelity,” Atkins wrote. Christians
can forgive sin, the pastor said, “but will struggle to understand how
anyone could be a Mormon and call themselves a Christian.”

Chavez, a Roman Catholic and Republican voter in Columbia, said he
can’t support Romney and neither can many people he knows. “As a
Christian, I can’t vote for somebody who can’t lead us in a Christian
way,” Chavez said. He’s leaning toward voting for Perry.

Yet, even Atkins ended his website post by predicting that most Christians will vote based on economic, not moral, concerns.

he made the comment ruefully, he inadvertently highlighted what
evangelical leaders have been struggling to explain ever since the 1980s
emergence of the Christian right: Christian conservatives don’t just
vote on religion, not in South Carolina or anywhere else.

South Carolina has one of the most dramatic examples of how political pragmatism can co-exist with faith.

Jones III, chancellor of the fundamentalist Christian school Bob Jones
University in Greenville, stunned many when he endorsed Romney in the
2008 primary.

Fundamentalists generally steer
clear of anyone with even the most minor difference over Scripture. But
Jones said the country elects a president not a preacher. This past
week, Jones said through a spokeswoman that he hasn’t endorsed anyone so
far in the 2012 primary.

Romney supporters
often compare his plight to that of Kennedy, who overcame widespread
prejudice to become the first Catholic president.

Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the
University of Mississippi, said the story of the Rev. Jerry Falwell may
be more apt for this election cycle as a model for Christian
conservatives. When Falwell was building the Moral Majority in the
1980s, he set aside deep theological differences with Catholics and
worked closely with them against abortion.

“Evangelicals have been willing to make alliances with groups you never would have imagined,” Wilson said.

Maybe Mormons will be next.


Associated Press reporters Brian Bakst and Kasie Hunt contributed to this story.

Rachel Zoll is on Twitter at

The Associated Press