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Romney, Huntsman face challenge of winning over evangelicals

Stan Craig, a Vietnam veteran and fundamentalist Baptist preacher here, winces at the idea of a female president.

Yet he hesitated when he was asked recently to make a hypothetical choice between Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

“I probably would cast my vote for Michele,” Craig said.

His thinking: Romney is Mormon. Mormons, in Craig’s view, are not Christian.

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“The devil wrote only one Bible,” Craig said, “and Joseph Smith found it under a rock.”

As Romney is joined by another Mormon seeking the Republican presidential nomination — former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. — the inevitable question has arisen: Will their religion deter voters, particularly conservative evangelicals who form a key voting bloc of the Republican primary base?

The Book of Mormon, translated from golden plates that Joseph Smith said he found by divine guidance on a hill in upstate New York, is the foundation for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons consider the book another gospel of Christ. Many conservative evangelicals consider it incompatible with the Bible, and Mormonism a “false religion.”

In Iowa and South Carolina, where the majority of Republican voters are born-again Christians, Mormonism could be an obstacle, but one that could be overcome if the weak economy trumps other concerns.

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Doug Wavle, a state executive committee member for the Greenville County Republican Party and a 2000 presidential elector, said he was an independent Baptist who could vote for a Mormon candidate, but only as “the lesser of two evils.”

“I will be honest with you,” he said. “Mormons don’t see Jesus Christ for who Jesus Christ really is. That’s the big issue. They see him as a prophet, not the only begotten son of God. They’ve got a prophet we don’t hold to, who gave them the Book of Mormon.”

(There are many points of doctrinal disagreement between Christian evangelicals and Mormons, but whether Jesus was the son of God is not one of them. It is a foundation of the religion.)

In June, evangelical essayist Warren Cole Smith touched off a debate on Patheos, a religion website, when he wrote that electing a Mormon president “would serve to normalize the false teachings of Mormonism the world over.… To elect a Mormon president is to advance the cause of the Mormon Church.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, an evangelical Christian who has leapt to the front of the Republican pack in recent polls, benefits from this hostility. In a recent poll, Gallup found that older Republicans and those living in the South showed especially strong support for Perry, at or near 40%. Religious Republicans favored Perry over Romney by almost 2 to 1.

Polling shows that Mormon candidates have an uphill struggle. A Pew Research Center survey in June found that 34% of white evangelicals said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, and that a quarter of all Americans said they would be less likely to do so.

This attitude led Tennessee attorney David French and his wife, Nancy, to found the website Evangelicals for Mitt in 2006. It has been resurrected for this election.

French said he believed that only a “small number” of evangelicals would reject Romney based on religion, and that many were seeking a candidate whose values, rather than religious beliefs, mirror their own.

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“Where does he stand on abortion? Marriage?” French said. “If you talk to evangelicals, many will say even if they disagree with Mormon theology, the Mormons they know are rock-solid conservatives with values that should be of comfort.”

Gary Kuntzler, a Greenville tire company executive and a leader in his local Mormon church, said he was often challenged about whether Mormons are Christian. “It’s not something that makes you feel great,” he said. “But I don’t think politically there is much difference between mainstream LDS opinion or mainstream Baptist or other Protestant opinions.”

Still, Kuntzler, whose son once wore a “Be Nice to Your Mormon” T-shirt to school, estimates that 40% to 50% of the evangelical population in South Carolina would not vote for a Mormon for president.

But he takes the long view: “Even Christ was very unpopular in his homeland, and yet look what Christianity has done over the centuries.”

Voter mistrust based on religion is deeply ingrained in American political life.

John F. Kennedy vowed he would answer to the American people, not the pope, in order to dispel voter doubts about his fealty to the Roman Catholic Church.

In December 2007, Romney delivered what he hoped would be a contemporary echo of Kennedy’s appeal to be judged by his character, not his religion.

Romney said he could never disavow his Mormon faith but would not allow his church to influence his decisions as president. As to the nature of his faith, he said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history.”

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During that campaign, Romney was subjected to the political shenanigans for which South Carolina is infamous. Many evangelical GOP voters received Christmas cards purporting to be from Romney, with controversial verses from the Book of Mormon. He has visited South Carolina only once this time around, while Huntsman has been twice.

Huntsman, at a news conference in July at a high-tech automotive research facility here, said he didn’t think voters would resist him based on his faith.

“Campaigns are tough and you’ve got to face a little bit of head wind from time to time,” he said, “but I don’t think religion is going to be a deal-breaker.”

It is possible that high-profile endorsements from prominent evangelicals could help overcome voter resistance to a Mormon presidential candidate.

Bob Jones III, grandson of the founder of Bob Jones University in Greenville and currently its chancellor, endorsed Romney in the 2008 primary. At the time, he feared that two pro-abortion-rights candidates might face each other in the general election — former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and then-New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Despite the official anti-Mormon — and anti-Catholic — stances embraced by Bob Jones University, Jones was straightforward:

“As a Christian, I am completely opposed to the doctrines of Mormonism,” he said at the time. “But I’m not voting for a preacher. I’m voting for a president.”

The endorsement did not seem to make much difference. Romney barely campaigned in the state and finished a dismal fourth.

robin.abcarian@latimes.com


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