Sunday, September 10, 2006

SALT LAKE CITY — Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s possible run for president in 2008 is generating some excitement in the heavily Mormon state of Utah, but the big roadblock, some say, is the Republican Party’s powerful evangelical wing.

“It’s one thing to be a senator who’s Mormon,” said Boyd Petersen, chairman of the Mormon studies program at Utah Valley State College in Orem, “but a lot of people are going to ask if Salt Lake City is going to control the White House. [The candidate] will have to assuage all the concerns evangelical Christians have.”

A Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll conducted in June showed that 37 percent would never vote for a Mormon for president, compared with 14 percent who wouldn’t vote for a Jew and 9 percent who wouldn’t vote for a Roman Catholic.

But Mormons — members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) — have occupied state governorships and seats in Congress for years, and Mr. Romney is on the Republican shortlist for his party’s nomination in 2008.

“It’s being talked about,” said Robert Millet, professor of religious education, outreach and interfaith relations at Brigham Young University. “The far right fears that gaining the presidency would mean the grand legitimization of Mormonism as a Christian religion, and they don’t want to see that happen.

“In my mind, that’s as narrow-minded as you can get, but their feelings are understandable.”

Evangelicals who think many of President Bush’s public policy decisions are based on his evangelical beliefs wonder how much influence Mr. Romney’s Mormonism would wield if he became president.

Mormon and evangelical Christian theology are worlds apart on many issues.

“The Latter-day Saints have never been admitted to the evangelical world,” said Craig L. Blomberg, New Testament professor at Denver Seminary. “There’s serious debates as to whether the entire system of LDS doctrine could even be called Christian.

“No one was saying that about Catholicism in the late 1950s or in 1960,” he added, referring to John F. Kennedy’s faith being an issue in the 1960 presidential election.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Kennedy faced the issue head-on during a speech to Baptist ministers in Houston, when he promised his Catholic beliefs would not interfere with how he would govern the country.

On Thursday, Mr. Romney turned down an opportunity to give such a speech to the annual meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association in Salt Lake City. His office said he had other obligations in the state.

But his campaign will have to face the issue at some point, said Patrick Dorinson, communications director for the California Republican Party.

“I’m sure they’ll focus-group it,” Mr. Dorinson said. “People are getting beyond religion to a major extent. It all depends on how he addresses the issue.”

To date, Mr. Romney, who served as an LDS missionary to France in his teens, has dodged questions about the role of his faith in politics.

“I’m a religious person, and I believe Jesus Christ is my savior,” he said during a June 5 interview on PBS’ “The Charlie Rose Show.” “But then as you get into the details of doctrines, I’d probably say look, time out; let’s focus on the values that we share.”

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