Romney, guarded about his Mormonism, faces the Lieberman challenge

Mitt Romney speaks to supporters at a rally in Tempe, Ariz., April 20, 2012. (Gage Skidmore via CC)

Mitt Romney’s Lacrosse moment awaits him.

The Democratic convention in Los Angeles was where Joe Lieberman made history as the first Jewish candidate on a major ticket on Aug. 17, 2000. But two days later, history came to life in Lacrosse, Wis., the little college town where he walked — and pointedly did not drive — to the local synagogue on his first post-nomination Shabbat.

Townspeople came out of their homes to shake the vice presidential candidate’s hand, congratulate him and express their admiration for his adherence to the traditional tenets of Sabbath observance. The Middle American scene affirmed for Lieberman the country’s openness to different faiths, which has informed his career and culminated in his encomium to the Sabbath published last year, “The Gift of Rest.”

By contrast Romney, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, seems to prefer silence in handling his Mormonism in public. It’s a stark contrast to both Lieberman and Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic who in 1960 famously said he would not take political guidance from the Vatican.

“It’s clear his campaign made a decision that it is not interested in talking about his Mormonism, not its doctrines or theology, his experiences as a church leader, how it shaped his family,” said Patrick Mason, the chair of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. “He’s always said ‘I’m not running to be pastor in chief.’ ”

In fact, Romney on the trail has even cut off questioners when they ask about his religious beliefs. His campaign declined to comment for this story.

There was nary a hint of Mormonism during his one term governing Massachusetts, from 2003 to 2007, said Nancy Kaufman, then the director of the Boston-area Jewish Community Relations Council and now the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women.

“It was never an issue — it never even came up during the campaign,” Kaufman recalled of her many meetings with Romney and his staff on issues such as faith-based initiatives, health care, Israel and Iran divestment. “The only thing I ever heard about it was when we went to receptions and there was no wine.” Mormons abjure alcohol.

That lack of conversation about Romney’s religion is clearly no longer the case.

In an email complaint last year to the Washington Post about a story that detailed Romney’s leadership in the Boston-area Mormon community, his Jewish spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, balked. She substituted “Jew” and “Jewish” for Mormon in an attempt to underscore what she depicted as the complaint’s intrusiveness and offense. The New York Times has reported that the Romney campaign challenges reporters, “Would you have written this about a Jewish candidate?”

Some experts on Mormonism say the answer should be yes and add that Romney should welcome the scrutiny, especially because of his deep involvement in his church, as a young missionary in France and then as a bishop in Boston.

“His experience as a church leader provides some humanizing narrative of working with people who are unemployed, poor, immigrants,” Mason said. “People in America respect faith.”

Lieberman, who was unable to be interviewed for this article, embraced that lesson. In “The Gift of Rest,” he described how the curiosity of others intensified his own faith.

“In speaking with Christian friends, especially in the Evangelical and Roman Catholic communities, I’ve felt an appreciation for the gifts of Sabbath observance and a desire to spread them,” he wrote.

Romney should be prepared to accept even greater scrutiny because Mormonism is less well known and much younger than Judaism, said Ryan Cragun, an expert in the sociology of religion at the University of Tampa and a former Mormon.

“Judaism has been around for thousands of years, many people have been familiar with it,” he said. “The same cannot be said of Mormonism. It’s a young religion, it has a number of quirks and oddities, and people want to know more of that.”

Mason agreed, but added that Romney should avoid the particulars of Mormon theology while focusing on broad principles of shared faith with other religious communities. Romney seemed to be doing that last month when he delivered the commencement speech at Liberty University, the evangelical school in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

“Today, thanks to what you have gained here, you leave Liberty with conviction and confidence as your armor,” Romney said. “You know what you believe. You know who you are. And you know Whom you will serve. … Central to America’s rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life.”

Making common Christian cause against secular encroachment served Romney well, Mason said.

“It showed this common language of faith,” he said. “When he leaves [specific] theology out of it, he does well with the evangelicals.”

The approach could be critical for Romney with the GOP’s Evangelical base, whose distaste for Mormonism is rooted in what some Christians view as its aspirations to replace mainline Christian theology and its liturgy that posits among other things Christ’s appearance in North America. The strains have been evidenced in Romney’s difficulties in winning primary states in the South this year.

Thomas Terry, a non-Mormon who teaches communications at Idaho State University, a school with a substantial number of Mormon students, wrote last month about his encounters with anti-Mormon bigotry in the South. His article published by Inside Higher Ed generated much attention among Mormons.

One reason Romney — and other Mormons — may be hesitant to share details of their faith is because of the backlash it engenders among Christian Evangelicals, Terry said.

“Many of the students here were shocked at the anger against Mormonism that bubbled up four years ago” during Romney’s first presidential campaign, Terry added.

The Anti-Defamation League in tracking anti-Mormon prejudice has found negative attitudes among about a quarter of the population, according to its national director, Abraham Foxman.

“You see some [Protestant] ministers saying ugly things — it’s out there,” Foxman said.

The solution, Terry suggested, was more light. “We all believe in strange things,” he said, urging Romney to emulate Kennedy’s response to personal faith and public life.

Cragun, however, is not so sure Romney can do that without raising even more uncomfortable questions.

Kennedy, he noted, was raised as a Catholic, “but he was not orthodox and strict about it. When he came out and said, ‘I can govern without deferring to the pope,’ people could buy that. The same cannot be said by Mitt Romney [deferring to his religious leaders] — Mitt is an observant, devout, committed Mormon.”

Lieberman, who wears his Judaism on his sleeve, recently offered the Washington Post another warning.

“The reality is that the more you talk about the details of somebody’s religion, the more you encourage voters to vote on the religion rather than on the person and his politics,” he said.

Still, Foxman does not think that Romney can avoid talk of his religion in public.

“As the election gets closer, people will want to know what it means to be a Mormon,” he said.

“They will ask at a certain point, ‘How does it influence you when you make a decision?’”