WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney tried to capture the essence of what his religion meant to him in a little-noticed 1995 commencement address at his prep school. His Mormon faith, Romney said, is “one of the most important treasures of my life.”
It is a treasure that Romney, as a political candidate, has kept mostly in a private place — until recently. Now there are signs his protectiveness is easing. On Sunday, in what was described as a first for his candidacy, he allowed a handful of reporters to witness his attendance at a Mormon church near his summer home in Wolfeboro, N.H.
Romney’s decision to open up his church visit to the press was the most notable in a series of recent efforts to reveal more about how his faith has shaped him and his policies, part of an attempt to humanize him as well as respond to lingering concerns among some voters about putting a Mormon in the White House. The campaign is expected to encourage more emphasis on Romney’s religion at next week’s Republican convention in Tampa. Mormon prayers are expected to be delivered, along with a focus on turning points in Romney’s life, including his role as the leader of the Mormon church in the Boston area from 1986 to 1994.
“I think it would be excellent for people to know about,” said Kenneth Hutchins, who succeeded Romney as the president of the Boston stake, a group of local congregations akin to a Catholic diocese. “It would be hard to know him as a religious person without understanding who or what people in leadership positions really were, their standards and life.”
Despite the strides that Mormons have made in recent years in educating the public about their faith, the number of people who say they would not vote for a Mormon as president has remained steady. A Gallup poll released in June said 18 percent of those surveyed would not vote for a Mormon, a statistically insignificant difference from the 17 percent who said the same thing in 1967, when Romney’s father, George, had launched his presidential campaign.
The risk for Romney in opening up more about his faith is that it could turn some voters against him.
Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport said when he released the report that Romney’s faith “could become more of a negative factor” as voters focus on his religion, but stressed it was “far from clear” if that would be the case. He noted that 40 percent of those surveyed didn’t know Romney was a Mormon, so much might depend on how such people will view Romney once they identify his religion, as is likely to happen in coming weeks.
Kevin Madden, a top Romney adviser, said Monday that Romney’s Mormon faith is an important window for voters in understanding him.
“The governor’s faith is part of who he is,” Madden said. “It’s informed how he’s raised his family, it’s informed how he’s had a strong marriage. When we see him going to church, reading scripture, or Ann singing hymns, these are things where voters can learn about his life. And I think they’ll see it in a positive way.”
Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader who has talked frequently with Romney about faith and politics over the years (but who does not make presidential endorsements), said in an interview Monday that evangelicals are more likely to overlook whatever qualms they have about Mormonism in light of Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate. Land said that Ryan, a Catholic, has a high rating on social issues that are vital to many evangelicals.
“Mitt Romney has gone a long way to proving his bona fides to conservatives,” said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. As for Romney’s faith, Land predicted it will be less of an issue with evangelical Republicans because they have accepted Romney as the nominee and are anxious to replace President Obama. The question, he said, is whether Romney’s faith will become an issue to independents who are unfamiliar with Mormonism and might be concerned when they learn about its tenets.
For most of Romney’s political career, he has emphasized that he will keep his faith out of the public square, noting that Article VI of the Constitution says there is “no religious test” for office and that the First Amendment guarantees religious freedom. He underscored that once again at a campaign rally on Monday in Manchester, N.H., saying that Americans “respect the right of religions to practice in a free and tolerant way,” without mentioning Mormonism.
Romney’s religion briefly played a role in his first quest for public office. During Romney’s 1994 race against Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Joseph Kennedy II, the senator’s nephew, criticized the Mormon church’s exclusion of blacks and women from leadership roles. He was sharply rebuked by Romney supporters, who noted that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints allowed blacks to enter the priesthood in 1978. Romney seized the moment, reminding voters that the senator’s brother, John F. Kennedy, had won the presidency in part by pledging to separate religion and politics.
Romney said the senator was trying to undermine what his brother had achieved for all faiths. The Kennedy camp backed down. Romney’s faith played no significant part in his successful race to be governor.
But running for the presidency has brought new challenges. As Romney geared up to run for president in the 2008 campaign, he tried to address head-on the concerns raised by evangelicals who held much sway in the Republican primaries. He opened his home in 2006 to a group of evangelical leaders, including Land, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, and the Reverend Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham. More than a year later, Romney delivered a speech in which he defended the right of a person of any faith to be president while refraining from using the speech to explain or defend particular tenets of Mormonism.
But Romney still lost the support of many evangelicals, some of whom considered Mormonism a cult, and Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and a Baptist minister, won the Iowa caucuses. John McCain won the nomination.
This time around, the Romney campaign employed a different strategy. Romney did not hold a high-profile meeting with evangelicals, he has not delivered a speech focused on religion, and he acknowledged that some evangelicals would never accept the idea of voting for a Mormon. He played down social issues, not even listing abortion in his list of 64 “action steps” that shaped his strategy.
But that led to criticism that Romney had gone too far. One of the frequent complaints about Romney was that his reluctance to talk about his faith had reinforced the idea he lacked a connection to voters.
Romney, whose net worth is estimated to be at least $250 million, began to speak about his role as leader of the Mormon church in Boston as a way to address criticism that he could not relate to poor people.
“We had an unusual thing, still do, in our church, which is that people who have financial need, the person who’s the pastor of the congregation looks after them and tries to help them,” he told an audience in New Hampshire in December.
“What impressed me was that we’re all the same in the things we aspire for, the things we love. Our families, our faith, our country,” he said.