Google "Romney's Mormon problem" and you'll receive thousands of references to what the conventional wisdom says is the Republican presidential candidate's greatest liability among his party's largest voting bloc, religious conservatives.
In the eyes of many Christians, Mitt Romney's Mormon faith is incompatible with Christian theology.
Ironically, however, Romney can reassure skeptical Christian conservatives by stressing his Mormon values. That's because Mormonism is strongly associated with conservative positions on social issues such as abortion and marriage -- the very issues that are the greatest source of doubt about Romney among religious conservatives.
As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Romney has been downplaying his faith for most of his public life. Romney's 2007 "Faith in America" speech was meant to alleviate concerns that his religion would influence his governing.
Clearly, though, much of the public still associates the former Massachusetts governor primarily with his faith.
When the Washington Post and Pew Research Center recently asked a random sample of more than 1,000 Americans what one word they associate with Romney, "Mormon" was cited more than three times as often as any other.
Romney's faith resurfaced as a campaign issue in October when an evangelical pastor supporting Texas Governor Rick Perry declared Mormonism a cult and Romney "a non-Christian."
But religious conservatives' real problem with Romney is not his faith. (In fact, polls suggest Democrats are more likely than Republicans to view Mormonism negatively.) Rather, it's his shifting positions on marriage and the sanctity of human life.
As a candidate for the U.S. Senate in liberal Massachusetts, Romney tried to position himself to the left of his opponent, the same-sex marriage and abortion-rights champion Edward Kennedy.
Romney supported gay adoption and civil unions for gay couples. He told the Log Cabin Republicans, "As we seek to establish full equality for America's gay and lesbian citizens, I will provide more effective leadership than my opponent."
Romney now says he opposes same-sex marriage and in August signed a comprehensive pledge to defend traditional marriage. But Romney supports allowing gay couples to form "partnership agreements."
Romney's abortion position has been similarly elastic. He took a pro-abortion-rights position while running against Kennedy.
Campaigning for governor in 2002, he stated, "[A]s governor of the commonwealth, I will protect a woman's right to choose under the laws of the country and the commonwealth. That's the same position I've had for many years." He even attended a fundraising event for the Massachusetts affiliate of the bane of the pro-life movement, Planned Parenthood, to which Romney's wife made a $150 contribution.
Romney says he had a pro-life epiphany while peering through a microscope at embryonic stem cells in 2004. He compiled a mixed record on abortion as governor.
Romney vetoed taxpayer funding for human embryonic stem cell research. He also vetoed a bill that would have made emergency contraception available at pharmacies without a prescription and required emergency room doctors to dispense it to rape victims.
But Romneycare, Massachusetts' health care insurance reform law passed in 2006, allows women to obtain elective abortions for a $50 co-pay.
Romney now calls himself "firmly pro-life" and has referred to his past support for Roe as his life's "defining mistake." He insists he would be "delighted" to sign a federal ban on abortion if Roe were overturned. Yet Romney remains the least conservative Republican presidential candidate.
Romney can assuage skepticism about his social conservatism by stressing his Mormon values.
Mormons are renowned for being family-oriented, civic-minded and models of self-restraint. According to a 2010 Gallup survey, America's six million Mormons also compose the country's most conservative voting bloc.
Fifty-nine percent of Mormons self-identify as conservative, and only 8% as liberal. The next most conservative religious group is Protestants/other Christians, 46% of whom self-identify as conservative and 16% as liberal.
Mormons also have the highest share who self-identify as "very conservative," at 16%, and the lowest as "very liberal," at 1%.
A 2009 Pew poll found that Mormons are more likely than any other religion to take a pro-life position on abortion. Seventy percent of Mormons believe abortion should be illegal in most or all circumstances, compared with 42% of the general population.
Finally, a 2009 Pew poll found that 68% of Mormons believe Hollywood threatens their values, compared to 53% of evangelicals and 42% of the general population.
Mormons have been politically active in legislative efforts to protect traditional marriage. Their support (in the form of millions of dollars in donations and countless volunteers) was probably decisive in passing California's marriage protection amendment in 2008.
Romney has recently started to talk about his faith and values, and to juxtapose them with those of his latest rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
In a November debate, Romney mentioned that he's been a member of the same church for his entire life and married to the same woman for 42 years. The Romney campaign makes those same points in an Iowa mailer that touts Romney's social conservatism. "Mitt Romney lives his values," the ad tells Iowa's socially conservative caucus-goers.
It's not only in his marriage and family life (he has five sons) that Romney lives his values. As a Mormon lay leader, Romney did pastoral work that included counseling fellow Mormons on everything from marriage, adoption, and addiction to how to grieve the death of a loved one. As a bishop, Romney even counseled a woman not to abort her child.
These are stories that would humanize Romney and endear him to voters, including conservatives. He shouldn't be afraid to mention them just because they involve actions he took as a representative of his church.
In the eyes of many religious conservatives, Gov. Romney's problem is not that he is, if you will, too Mormon, but rather that he has not been Mormon enough -- that he hasn't always been true to traditional Mormon support for the sanctity of life and traditional marriage.
But Romney can turn his "Mormon problem" into an advantage by stressing the values and policy positions that derive from his faith.
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