Aim is to aid Romney in a presidential bid
A prominent Mormon filmmaker has launched a nationwide political organization to demystify the religion he shares with Governor Mitt Romney, in an effort to pave the way for a Romney presidential run.
Mitch Davis, who wrote and directed the 2001 movie “The Other Side of Heaven,” about a Mormon missionary to the South Pacific, unveiled a multipronged campaign this week to help explain the faith to American voters who hold deep suspicions about Mormons and probably wouldn’t vote for one for president.
The campaign, which could include billboards, television ads, and cameos by famous Mormons, is designed to educate people about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and aid Romney on an issue Davis believes is unfairly dogging him in his probable 2008 presidential campaign.
“If Mitt can be allowed to have a human face without all the folderol that might be slung at that face gratuitously, he will speak for himself, and he will be our next president,” said Davis, whose efforts were first reported yesterday in Utah newspapers.
Davis established a political organization, called RunMittRun.org, under section 527 of the IRS code in May, which means it must remain independent from Romney’s political operation. The website was launched this week as Romney increasingly faces questions about his religion, particularly in key primary states such as South Carolina, which is home to many Southern Baptists, many of whom view Mormonism as a cult.
Suspicion about the religion abounds among American voters, polls show. In a nationwide Bloomberg-Los Angeles Times poll last month, 35 percent of registered voters said they would not vote for a Mormon for president.
Davis’s organization, which has already started raising money through its website, commissioned its own recent poll to gauge views of Mormonism in South Carolina. He calls the results “stunning”: 33 percent of respondents said they could not vote for a Mormon, 50 percent said they didn’t think Mormons believed in the Bible, and 25 percent said they didn’t consider Mormons Christians, he said.
“This is an issue whose time has come, and Mitt’s candidacy, I think, brings the issue to a head and distills it in a [way] that hopefully will shed light rather than create heat,” Davis said.
Davis is also making a $1 million documentary about attitudes on Mormonism, Romney, and what role it will play in his campaign. He plans to release the movie in January 2009, just as the next president takes office.
A spokeswoman for Romney’s political action committee did not respond to a request for comment. Davis said Romney operatives are aware of his effort, but he noted that federal campaign rules prohibit a 527 group from coordinating with a candidate’s campaign. (Perhaps the best-known 527 group was the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which campaigned against John F. Kerry in the 2004 presidential race.)
Romney, who is widely considered a leading contender for the GOP nomination, has been forced to talk openly about his religion more than ever before. He is careful to tell interviewers he believes Jesus Christ is his savior, and he emphasizes to activists that he’s a man of faith who shares their values, if not their church.
But Romney has refused in recent media interviews to delve too deeply into the tenets of the Mormon faith. In an interview on “The Charlie Rose Show” last month, he instructed host Judy Woodruff to “go talk to the church” if she wanted to know about specific doctrine. And Romney refused to discuss his personal beliefs for a June 10 Wall Street Journal story about his faith, the paper reported.
Mormonism is viewed skeptically by many mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, and Catholic leaders because of serious theological differences over the nature of God, the means of salvation, and the definition of Scripture. The Vatican has declared that Mormon baptisms are not valid; the United Methodist Church, to which President Bush belongs, has declared that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “is not a part of the historic, apostolic tradition of the Christian faith.”
Mormons, on the other hand, view their faith as a restoration of the original Christian church.
Scholars who are following Romney’s exploration of a presidential candidacy argued yesterday that he is better served by talking about his faith.
“As long as he doesn’t talk about it, the nearly two centuries of prejudice against Mormonism just hangs out there,” said Kathleen Flake, assistant professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt Divinity School.
Observers often compare Romney’s predicament to that of John F. Kennedy, who overcame widespread anti-Catholicism in his successful bid for the presidency in 1960. Boston University history professor Julian Zelizer said Romney should follow Kennedy’s example: Give a compelling public speech that assures the public he won’t be beholden to his church.
“If he waits and relies on a group like this, he’ll lose this issue,” Zelizer said. “He will have to pull a Kennedy.”
But another scholar suggested that Romney’s challenge is greater than Kennedy’s, because in addition to bias, the differences over theology are more fundamental.
“I think initially it’s going to be a difficult thing for him,” said Boyd J. Petersen, acting coordinator of Mormon studies at Utah Valley State College.
But Petersen said Davis’s efforts could be “a real positive thing, because a lot of media portrayal of Mormons is pretty bland, and as people get exposed to different Mormons, the idea of what it is to be a Mormon will be expanded a little bit in the American conscience.”