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Why Romney’s Mormon faith won’t derail his campaign

07-20-07 Sun-Times studio -  Steve Huntley for column mug -  - JOHN J. KIM ~ SUN-TIMES

07-20-07 Sun-Times studio - Steve Huntley for column mug - - JOHN J. KIM ~ SUN-TIMES

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:19AM

Who cares that Mitt Romney is a Mormon? Apparently, more than a few evangelical Christians do, posing yet another obstacle on the road to the nomination for the Republican who looks like the potential GOP nominee with the most appeal to independents and conservative Democrats and thus the best chance of defeating President Barack Obama in 2012.

This issue, long lurking below the surface, erupted last week when a supporter of Texas Gov. Rick Perry labeled the Mormon religion a cult, a reason that he said evangelical Christians shouldn’t support Romney.

That comment by the Rev. Robert Jeffress, a Baptist minister from Dallas, came after he had introduced Perry to the Values Voter Summit of religious and conservative activists. The remark was made out of Perry’s earshot and he said he does not regard Mormonism as a cult.

Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who is the longest of shots and who is arguably the most social conservative among the Republican field, had the best answer to the question of whether Mormonism is a cult. No, Santorum told Fox News. “All I know is that every Mormon I know is a good and decent person, has great moral values.”

Romney strikes me as one who compartmentalizes his religion, keeping it out of his business and politics. Ironically, it’s Perry who wears his evangelical religion on his sleeve. Also ironically, even Jeffress described Romney as “a good moral person.” That sounds like a good character reference for a presidential aspirant.

Jeffress is hardly alone in his hostility to Mormonism. More than one-third of GOP primary voters say most people they know would not vote for a candidate who is a Mormon, according to a recent New York Times/CBS poll.

Romney did not respond to Jeffress in his summit speech, but referred to another summit speaker who denounces Muslims and gays, and said, “We should remember that decency and civility are values, too. ... Poisonous language doesn’t advance our cause.”

All this of course brings to mind questions about John F. Kennedy’s Catholic faith during the 1960 presidential campaign. Kennedy dismissed the issue to the satisfaction of voters in a famous speech, declaring: “I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.”

During the 2008 presidential campaign cycle when he was also a candidate, Romney addressed the issue, declaring: “I do not define my candidacy by my religion.”

Romney’s speech failed to have the impact of Kennedy’s for two reasons. First, for the vast majority of Americans, Kennedy’s rhetoric settled the issue. Second, for those it did not, nothing Romney can say will change their minds.

The bottom line: Romney’s Mormonism presents a problem in some primaries, but not in a general election. As news interviews at the values summit showed, evangelical Christians reasonably think four more years of Obama’s policies would be disastrous for the country, and if Romney is the GOP nominee, they’ll swallow hard and vote for him.

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