Nearly a half-century after John F. Kennedy broke the Catholic barrier to the presidency, Mitt Romney is attempting a similar feat.
His Mormon faith raises the fur of some conservative Christians. Many evangelical believers — a group that Romney must win over to prevail in the primaries — say the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not Christianity.
A Bumpy Campaign Trail
At a forum in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday, other Republican hopefuls such as Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee spoke repeatedly about their Christian faith. Mitt Romney barely mentioned God, much less the Church of Latter-day Saints. Instead, he invoked Ronald Reagan, the military, the economy and family.
The former governor of Massachusetts — the first state to legalize gay marriage — Romney drew the biggest applause with this line: "I believe every child deserves a mom and a dad, and I think it's critical for our nation that we put in place a federal amendment that protects the sanctity of marriage."
For Romney, this was not the easiest crowd, filled with pro-life Christians who, polls show, often vote along religious lines. Reaction to Romney was mixed.
Mary Doren, a stay-at-home mom, said Romney's Mormon faith was a deal breaker.
"I'm a Christian," Doren said. "I don't think a Mormon or a Catholic is a Christian."
Suzanne Clackey, who home schools her children, echoed similar theological concerns.
"My understanding is they don't believe in the triune God, and so that would bother me," she said.
But others, like Amy Neihaw, argued that Romney's values trump religion.
"I'm familiar with the religion," Neihaw said. "And although I don't believe it, their morals are very biblical — as far as I can tell — and he supports the issues that I care about."
A Conversion to Conservatism
Some conservative voters wonder about the depth of Romney's sincerity on litmus-test issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
When Romney was running against Sen. Edward Kennedy in the 1994 Massachusetts Senate race, he wrote the Log Cabin Republicans a letter in which he stated: "I am more convinced than ever that, as we seek to establish full equality for America's gay and lesbian citizens, I will provide more effective leadership than my opponent."
On abortion, the bright line for evangelicals, Romney's own words have come to haunt him. In a 1994 debate with Kennedy, Romney said: "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years, we should sustain and support it. And I sustain and support that law and the right of a woman to make that choice."
At the time, Romney insisted he would not impose his personal morals on others. But now that he is running for president, more than a decade later, his philosophy has turned 180 degrees.
"I proudly follow a long line of converts — George Herbert Walker Bush, Ronald Reagan, Henry Hyde — just to name a few," Romney told pro-life activists in June. "I'm evidence that your work, that your relentless campaign to promote the sanctity of human life, bears fruit."
His turnaround, however, has left some unconvinced.
"My hesitation doesn't stem from faith," Greg Hartzel says. "My hesitation stems from his recent conversion to conservatism."
Mormonism and Skepticism
While many might be skeptical about the depth of his commitment to conservative values, Christian conservatives have another layer of issues with Romney.
For a group of people who often vote along denominational lines, Romney's candidacy poses a basic problem.
"Mormonism is not Christianity," says Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a powerful voice among conservative Christians.
Mohler and other evangelical theologians point to the origin of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some 180 years ago, Joseph Smith translated golden plates provided by the angel Moroni and wrote down those revelations in the Book of Mormon, which is considered a sacred text. Smith was told that Catholic and Protestant Christians were hopelessly lost.
"Historically, the whole idea of Mormonism was to repudiate Christianity, to replace Christianity," Mohler says. "Joseph Smith claimed to receive this revelation that would restore the true Church — the Church that, according to the documents of Mormonism, fell into corruption immediately after the death of the apostles."
Mohler and others say Mormon theology differs from that of the Catholic and Protestant churches on many of the key issues, such as the Trinity, the nature of God, the nature of Jesus Christ and the role of the crucifixion in personal salvation. The Church of Latter-day Saints maintains, for example, that God began as man and progressed to deity, something other people can do today.
Bridging the Christian Gap
Whether Romney will deter Christians from voting for him remains to be seen, but John Green, a senior fellow at Pew Research Center says that it might. Polls show that Americans say they are less comfortable with the idea of a Mormon president than with a Catholic, Protestant or Jew, though Mormons rank higher than Muslims or atheists.
"When asked in polls whether they would vote for a Mormon candidate, a substantial minority of conservative Christians say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate," Green notes. "And when those questions are followed up, there's a significant group that says there's no chance that they would vote for a Mormon candidate."
That could be a problem, Green says, because any Republican candidate needs the evangelical base to win the primaries and get to the general election.
"When President Bush was re-elected in 2004, approximately four out of 10 of his votes came from conservative Christians. In some Republican primaries, that might even be larger — particularly in the South," Green says.
The South is an area rich in religious conservative voters. But Green says even evangelicals don't vote on religion alone — especially if they feel that Romney's Republican and Democratic rivals may say they are Protestant or Catholic, but fail to take enough of a pro-life and anti-gay-marriage stance.
Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Seminary says the squeaky-clean Romney, who has been married to his wife for 38 years, scores awfully high on family values and morality.
"There are circumstances in which I might well vote for Mitt Romney as president of the United States," Mohler says. "In the right political context, there could be a lot of evangelicals voting for a Mormon candidate."