US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s faith emerged as little more than a secondary issue on the US campaign trail, but with the Republican nomination securely in his grip, are US voters now ready for a Mormon president?
The candidate made history late on Tuesday as the first person from his religion to win the nomination of a major political party and the achievement helps show how far the acceptance of Mormonism has come since its founding in the US nearly two centuries ago.
Romney as president could be a golden opportunity for a church aiming to broaden its base across the US and internationally, but it is also fraught with risk.
Romney, who outlasted several rivals in a bruising primary battle, has become the unlikely flagbearer of a Republican movement heavily influenced by evangelical Christians, some of whom have called Mormonism a “cult.”
However, despite persistent skepticism about the faith — a Bloomberg News poll in March showed that more than one in three Americans hold an unfavorable view of the Mormon church — associate professor Brandon Rottinghaus of the University of Houston said on Wednesday he thinks Americans are ready for a Mormon president.
“There will be a small segment of evangelical voters who won’t accept the Mormon faith as a tenet of Christianity, but most voters will be tolerant,” Rottinghaus said. “The big challenge for the Romney campaign was to get through the Republican primary process without a religious uproar.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has remained silent on the presidential campaign, even though Romney’s milestone could be seen as a plus for Mormonism.
“The church’s political neutrality is well established, and we have no interest in providing commentary on a political race,” said Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the Utah-based church.
The breakthrough is tempered by the historic nature of the 2008 race, which achieved several firsts: Americans elected Democrat US President Barack Obama as their first black president, Sarah Palin became the first female Republican vice presidential pick, and Hillary Rodham Clinton almost earned her party’s nomination.
In 2000, Democrat Al Gore very nearly won the White House with Joe Lieberman, an orthodox Jew, as his running mate.
“Primary audiences in both parties are used to seeing diversity among the pool of potential nominees,” Rottinghaus said.
Romney is not the first Mormon to seek the White House. Church founder Joseph Smith ran in 1844, in part to press for greater civil liberties for members of his nascent church.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman was a candidate this year, but his campaign failed to gain traction and he dropped out in January.
With the general election now in full swing, Obama and Romney are criticizing each other over economic policy. However, character and personal background form a piece of the puzzle and Romney’s faith will likely come under scrutiny.
For many Mormons, like Aaron Sherinian, a public relations professional, Romney’s nomination marks “a chance to talk about who we are, what we believe.”
However, “religion isn’t the issue on the ballot,” Sherinian said. “This election is going to be more about what’s happening to people’s pocketbooks than what’s being said over pulpits.”
Romney has spoken little about his religion, other than portraying himself as a man of faith with beliefs similar to those of other Christians.