The website, RunMittRun.org, has a precise timer counting the seconds, minutes, days and hours until January 2007, when Mitt Romney is widely expected to announce his candidacy for president of the United States.  

The 59-year-old venture capitalist, governor of Massachusetts, and white knight, who saved the ailing Salt Lake Olympics and turned it from a $400 million deficit to a $100 million surplus, has been methodically putting all the pieces in place with the flair and deftness of one who has built many organizations before.  He has been staff-building, fund-raising, and reaching out broadly for support.

Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire political operative, told the Detroit News, “I have not seen an individual approach this situation with a greater degree of structure or by compiling such a vast database for making it, both on the personal and political sides.” 

Word is that he plans to file papers to establish a presidential committee by mid-December.

He has captured the interest of the media, who describe him in terms like MSNBC –

a charismatic communicator with an actor’s good looks, a glowing resume and socially conservative politics, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could be a dream candidate for Republicans in the 2008 White House race.”  He acts presidential; he looks presidential; he speaks presidential.

But most of the articles that talk about Romney also get stuck on one point:  Would America elect a Mormon as president?  In June a Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg poll found that 37% of those surveyed wouldn’t vote for a Mormon.  Only Islam would be a more damaging faith for a candidate, the poll found.  A Rasmussen poll just released put that number who wouldn’t vote for a Mormon at about 43%.

MSNBC has been running an unscientific readers’ poll in the past few days asking that same question, and the word has flitted about the Internet in a momentous cyber spread.  Meridian could run a contest asking how many times readers have received an email telling them about the poll with the link to vote.  For those who have been too busy Christmas shopping to check your email, where a friend has surely sent you a message asking you to vote, click here for the link http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15936002/ which at this point indicates that with more than 138,000 voters 94% would vote for a Mormon, 4.5% said no and another 1.7% are not sure.

With tongue in cheek, Meridian put up a similar poll, with only slightly different results 96.8% saying yes.

Impacting the Church

Certainly a Romney candidacy would affect the Church.  Those who don’t understand Latter-day Saints, our doctrine, or our practices often leap to erroneous conclusions. Because they find the doctrine mysterious, Americans are suspicious. The media often portrays the Church has powerful, secretive and wealthy, and imagine that a Mormon president would take marching orders from Salt Lake. 

This is a laughable idea from those who must know very little about how far the Church goes to remain politically neutral – and reaffirms that every election.  The Church doesn’t even allow voter registration in its buildings, and certainly no use of ward lists or facilities for anything remotely reminiscent of anything political.  Politics is just off the list of topics delved into at church.

Though the Church has taken stands on what they consider moral issues, even then the counsel is that members themselves become independently anxiously engaged.  

A recent article in Time magazine on a Romney candidacy reported that “Michael Otterson, a Mormon convert who is now the church’s director of media relations, was calling on political reporters when he visited Washington from Utah in October. He wants them to know that in its 176-year history, the church has never endorsed a presidential candidate and that much of the folklore surrounding its beliefs just isn’t true. ‘The message in a nutshell is, Remember that we’re politically neutral as an institution,’ he says. ‘The church is about preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Anything else is a distraction.’ Otterson says he has a ‘no dumb questions’ policy and urges journalists to call his cell phone, day or night.”

This open-door policy should certainly help because the Church and its doctrine will surely be under the media microscope in the next two years, but it is a job that’s never done.  Detractors bring up the same old, boring jabs about multiple wives and confuse the Church with Mormon splinter groups.  They view the Church’s beliefs as exotic and strange; they claim we’re not Christian. The Southern Baptist Convention lists the LDS church under Cults and Sects, along with Scientology.

Though these messages will abound as a Romney candidacy gains ground, it will also be an opportunity for people to get a clearer picture of the Church and its members than they might have had before, which can only be a plus.  The media glare might quench the fire that breeds misconceptions, and Romney has proven in the past that he handles himself well in the spotlight.

A magazine reported that “A writer for the Atlantic Monthly asked Romney last year if he wears Temple Garments – white underclothing. donned with reverence by the most faithful Mormons. ‘I’ll just say those sorts of things I’ll keep private,’ he sensibly replied. Will that dodge work for other theological questions?

“Calling himself ‘a religious person,’ Romney in June used the Charlie Rose Show on PBS to test-drive an answer that keeps him from getting into the nitty-gritty of his religious heritage. ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is my savior,’ he said. ‘But then as you get into the details of doctrines, I’d probably say, “Look, time out. Let’s focus on the values that we share.””

That kind of high-mindedness proved effective during Romney’s unsuccessful challenge to Senator Edward Kennedy in 1994, after Kennedy tried to make an issue of the Mormons’ attitude toward blacks and women. Romney said he was not running ‘to be a spokesman for my church,’ and Kennedy backed off.

Focus off Faith

So back to the immediate question.  Can Romney overcome the disadvantage that many see his religion to be? Columnist Robert Novak said, “Of course, the U.S. Constitution prohibits a religious test for public office, but that is precisely what is being posed now.”

He claims, “The Evangelicals are adamant, saying there is no way Romney can win them over.”

Novak underestimates Romney. When Romney wrote a book about his experience with the Salt Lake Olympics, he called it Turnaround.  When he formed Bain Capital in Boston, he focused on taking ailing companies and making them into super champions.  As governor of Massachusetts, he took a bleeding, deficit-ridden state to the tune of a $3 billion and gave it a surplus in four years without raising taxes.  He’s tough; he’s smart; he knows how to win.

When the Christian Broadcasting Network did a lengthy and very positive news story on him, they said that if ever a film were to be made about him, a good title would be Dead Man Walking. They recounted the story that in 1968 as Mormon missionary, he was hit dead on by a car and a French officer wrote on his passport, “Il est mort.”  (He is dead.)

When the word reached his father, George Romney, the senior Romney wouldn’t believe it, and Mitt has defied the odds ever since.  The New York Times calls him the turnaround specialist.

Mitt told the CBN that when people say they won’t vote for a Mormon, they are basing that opinion on the only thing they might know.  It becomes different when the idea becomes a real person, especially one who shares their values.

Fact is, the Republican possibilities that might appeal to Evangelicals are thinning out.

Tennessee’s Bill Frist said he wouldn’t run for office.  Contenders George Allen and Rick Santorum both lost their Senate seats in this last election, which essentially knocks them out of the running. Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Kansas senator Sam Brownback are looking at the race and would have appeal to the Evangelical voters, but top contenders for the Republican nomination along with Mitt as of now are Rudy Guiliani, who became a star with his deft handling of the 9/11 crisis, and Arizona senator John McCain. 

Both of them, however, lack a little luster when it comes to typically social conservative issues.  Guiliani is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, and though John McCain claims he is for the traditional definition of marriage, he did not vote for the federal marriage amendment.   He also voted against the Bush tax cuts, was apart of the Gang of 14 who made it more difficult to get conservative judges confirmed, and sponsored the campaign reform bill that many feel muffled free speech.

The Only Conservative Spot in Massachusetts

Eager to position himself as the most conservative of the GOP, Romney has things falling together for him to become the champion of conservative values. As the Republican governor of the liberal northeastern state where the courts imposed same-sex marriage, he’s been pushing back. 

A petition was signed by an unprecedented 170,000 citizens to put a marriage amendment on the ballot, the first step in a procedure that also requires the assent two times of a constitutional convention.  Yet, in political maneuvering, the state legislature there recessed until Jan. 2, the last day of the legislative session without putting the measure to a vote.

At a marriage-protection rally, Romney said, “Last week, 109 legislators decided to reject the law, abandon the Constitution and violate their oath of office. For the Constitution plainly states that when a qualified petition is placed before them, the legislature ‘shall’ vote. It does not say may vote, or vote if its procedures permit a vote, or vote if there are enough of the members in attendance. It says ‘shall’ vote.”

He continued, “A decision not to vote is a decision to usurp the Constitution, to abandon democracy and substitute a form of what this nation’s founders called tyranny, that is, the imposition of the will of those in power, on the people.”

Commenting on this in National Review, conservative columnist Kathryn Lopez said:

In contrast, the incoming Democratic governor, formerly an official in the Bill Clinton administration, has said, “I think the (high court) got it right.” Gov.-elect Deval Patrick continued, “I think all they did was affirm the principle that people come before their government as equals.”
 
Whether he finds himself about to move into the White House two years from now, Romney already has contributed a great deal to the debate over marriage in the United States with the tone of his principled rhetoric. At a recent evangelical rally, the Mormon took back some of the left’s monopoly on “the children.” He said, “The price of same-sex marriage is paid by children. Our fight for marriage, then, should focus on the needs of children, not the rights of adults.

“In fact, as Americans, I believe that we should show an outpouring of respect and tolerance for all people, regardless of their differences or their different choices. We must vigorously reject discrimination and bigotry. We are all God’s children. He abhors none of us.”

As Romney put it in a letter to U.S. senators this summer as they were taking up a federal marriage amendment: “Americans are tolerant, generous and kind people. We all oppose bigotry and disparagement, and we all wish to avoid hurtful disregard of the feelings of others. But the debate over same-sex marriage is not a debate over tolerance. It is a debate about the purpose of the institution of marriage.”

A Standing Ovation

This kind of speech brought Mitt a standing ovation at the Value Voters Summit held last September, where 2,000 activists came together at the invitation of Evangelical groups like Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and the Alliance Defense Fund.  Later, when the Family Research Council did a satellite program on religious freedom, that was beamed into churches all across America, Mitt and his wife, Anne, were featured speakers.

A boom of websites for Mitt have also appeared on the web indicating the buffet of people who support him, including Americans for Mitt, Catholics For Romney, Evangelicals For Mitt, Illinoisans For Mitt, Iowans for Romney, Law Students For Romney, Massachusetts for Mitt, South Carolinians For Mitt Romney, Tennesseans for Mitt and Texans For Mitt.

Prominent religious leaders including Jerry Falwell, Richard Land, Marvin Olasky, and Chuck Colson have already said that they could vote for a Mormon who shares their values.  Columnist Cal Thomas wrote, “It troubles me not that a Mormon might become president.”

The oft-repeated line is, “The election is for president, not pastor.”

Michael Graham, the CBS radio host, originally from South Carolina who now resides in Boston, wrote that the rift over religion is “not enough to stop southern Baptists for voting for Mitt Romney. In fact, he’ll do well there because of it.”

He continued, “In America today, where religion and faith are under constant media assault, the question evangelical voters are asking isn’t “Christian vs. Jew” or “Methodist vs. Mormon,” but rather “God or no God?”  For values voters, the battle is between people who value faith and those who either ignore it or are actively hostile toward it.  Romney is an ally to evangelicals not because he is or isn’t a Christian, but because he’s a conservative who believes in God and takes his faith seriously.”

Evangelicals also note that Romney opposed embryonic stem cell research in Massachusetts, an effort they see as a lonely and courageous battle.

Hugh Hewitt’s New Book

Well-known radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt has written a book that has not yet hit the stands called A Mormon in the White House?  10 Things Every Conservative Should Know about Mitt Romney. He believes that the way Evangelicals respond to the possibility of a Mormon in the White House has the potential to help or hurt themselves.

He notes that since Romney will be in the spotlight, journalists will be turning to evangelical professors and pastors for their take on Mormonism.  Hewitt cautioned, “Every theological or philosophical argument Evangelicals use against a Mormon candidate or Mormon theology will eventually be used against evangelicals.” 

He said that once “secular absolutists” get them to talk about theology, they open themselves to attack.  “If we begin to ask Mitt Romney about which [Mormon] practices and doctrines he subscribes to, it cannot be capped. It will not be stopped.”

Hewitt said, “They do not want us in politics and in the public square because they believe us widely to be irrational,” he said.  “It would be tragic to me that in the course of rushing off to do battle with Mormon theology, you attract our common opponent,” the secular absolutists.  

Move On

Romney has been calling on Evangelical leaders and in October hosted more than a dozen of them in his living room for lunch.  The discussion of his faith passed quickly, and then they moved on to other issues.  This is a pattern for what Romney hopes will happen – that discussions of his candidacy can move on from being stuck on his religion. 

The Boston Globe reported that Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the demonimation, said that voters want “a commander in chief, not a theologian in chief.” Land said he encouraged the governor to do what John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, did in 1960: Give a major speech that confronts head on the lingering prejudices against his religion.

“I told him I thought most Americans believed in fair play, and you have the opportunity to take the poison out of this issue the same way that Senator Kennedy did,”  “I think he needs to address the issue sooner rather than later. I just encouraged him to do it forthrightly and honestly and say, ‘Look, this is my faith, and we don’t have a religious test for office, and here’s how my faith informs my values system.’ “

Forty-six years ago John F. Kennedy told Protestant church leaders in Houston that he was “not the Catholic candidate for President” but instead was “the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be Catholic.”  As soon as he announces his candidacy, one of the first orders of business may be for Romney to give a similar speech.

The question isn’t whether citizens would vote for a Mormon for president, but if they will vote for Mitt Romney.  That depends not on his faith, but on his persuasion and policy, if he can convince voters he is the man for the job. He thinks people should consider who can deal with the jihadists, who can make sure we remain the economic superpower, who can preserve the culture and values that are American and who will finally reign in the excessive spending in Washington – not which church he visits on Sundays.


2006 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.