JACKSON, Miss. - As one of 20,000 Mormons living in a state dominated by evangelical Christians, Van J. Bodin’s own life experience tells him what Mitt Romney is up against in the South.
“People don’t understand us,’’ said Bodin, purchasing manager at a lumber company in central Mississippi. “The South is the Bible Belt, and that’s how it is. There are not that many people open to listening and gaining more knowledge.’’
There are other strikes against Romney in the Deep South. He is a multimillionaire with strong Wall Street ties. He hails from Massachusetts, a liberal, Yankee state. His conservative credentials have gaps, given his change from supporting abortion rights to opposing them and his universal health care plan in Massachusetts.
But his Mormon faith also exerts a drag on his candidacy in places like Mississippi and Alabama, which hold primary elections on Tuesday. Romney has done especially poorly in the 2012 primaries among religious conservatives, who dominate Republican primary elections in the South.
Take Tennessee, where more than 70 percent of the voters in last week’s Super Tuesday Republican primary were evangelical Christians. Rick Santorum, who won the state by almost 10 points, captured 42 percent of the evangelical vote; Romney got 24 percent.
“He had difficultly attracting Southern Baptists in Tennessee, and we will see the same in the remaining Southern states,’’ said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. “At a time when anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism have gone into remission, anti-Mormonism is alive and well - and spreading - especially among the voters of the Republican base.’’
Romney’s campaign is casting the former Bay State governor as an underdog in the South and is downplaying his chances of success in Alabama and in Mississippi. Romney jokingly alluded to his northerner, outsider status Friday.
“Mornin’, y’all,’’ he told a large crowd at a town hall meeting in Jackson. “I got started right this morning with a biscuit and some cheesy grits.’’
His folksy effort complete, he launched into an indictment of President Obama and did not mention his rivals for the nomination.
In 2007, during his first run for president, Romney delivered a pivotal speech defending religious differences and stating he would not be influenced by Mormon church leaders. In the 2012 campaign, Romney has rarely mentioned his faith on the stump, although he sometimes mentions his work as a Mormon missionary or church leader.
“Most people don’t care if you go to a different church. What matters for the vast majority of voters is shared values,’’ Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said in an e-mail Friday. “In Mitt Romney they have a candidate who believes in faith, patriotism, hard work, and sacrifice. All they have to do is look at his family and how he lives his life.’’
When asked specifically in November about Romney’s Mormon faith, 15 percent of Republican evangelical Christians said it makes them less likely to support him, according to a survey taken by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Pew Research Center. That is about double the percentage of all Republican voters.
“Mormonism seems to be part of the issue,’’ said Alan Cooperman, associate director of research at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “Clearly other issues - how conservative is he, how consistent he is - are other factors.’’
Another key Pew finding is that evangelical voters would support Romney in a general election against Obama. But for now, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination is weakened by his lack of support among religious conservatives.
Their heads bowed in prayer, several hundred Santorum supporters greeted the former Pennsylvania senator at a meeting hall in Mississippi’s capital the other night. None criticized Romney’s religion, even when directly asked, although several said they do not believe Mormons are Christians.
One voter at the rally, Roy McMillan, said he prefers Santorum in the Republican primary because, among other things, he is a “devout Christian leader.’’
McMillan said he does not consider Romney and other Mormons to be Christians.
“I’m not saying he’s not going to be in Heaven,’’ he said. “I desire candidates who respect the teachings of the church.’’
Mormons consider themselves a branch of the Christian family, while many Christians do not believe they belong.
The Mormon concept of Jesus - that he is son of God, but a separate being - is different from the traditional Christian view that the trinity of father, son, and Holy Spirit make up a single divine entity.
In the theological debate, remarks by fundamentalist Christian leaders have generated headlines. A prominent Texas pastor, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, declared outside a Rick Perry campaign event in October that Romney “is not a Christian’’ and called Mormonism a cult.
Richard Land, a high-ranking figure in the Southern Baptist Conference, a large and influential organization, told the website Newsmax last month that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a Christian faith and shares similarities with Islam.
In Mississippi, Mormons are accustomed to such comments. Steven Boone, prosecutor in the city of Clinton and president of the Jackson area’s Mormon stake (similar to a diocese), said many Mississippi residents have been raised hearing negative stereotypes about Mormons. But his evangelical friends realize that his faith is similar to theirs and accept that he believes Jesus is his savior, just as they do. Growing up in school, said Boone, classmates were accepting.
“I respected their beliefs and they respected mine. At sporting activities, someone would say a swear word, and people would say, ‘Don’t swear around him, he’s a Mormon!’ We respected each other.’’
Bodin, the purchasing agent at Rex Lumber and former Jackson stake president, said he fields questions about polygamy and other church controversies. People ask him if Romney would take direction from church leaders in Salt Lake City, he said, just as people questioned whether John F. Kennedy, the first and only Catholic president, would get his orders from the Vatican.
When Bodin converted to Mormonism when he was 20, it shocked his Cajun family in Louisiana.
“It was hard for them. It was hard on my mother,’’ he said. “But she sees I didn’t grow horns. I still love her. I still care about her. I wasn’t brainwashed.’’