Gary Heuer and Robert Balmer, pastors of a small evangelical congregation, came to see Mitt Romney on their lunch hour last week, curious whether the values of the Republican presidential candidate matched their own.
“Pro-life and pro-marriage — that’s the two,” said Balmer, who walked away from an informal “Ask Mitt Anything” forum satisfied with what he heard.
That helped the two part-time pastors of Olympia’s Faith Assembly of God answer — at least for themselves — the question that looms over the Romney campaign: Will a Southern evangelical Christian support a Mormon for president?
Romney’s faith “might make a difference in the (GOP) primary,” said Heuer, who leans toward fellow evangelical Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, “but not in a general election.”
If it comes down to a match between Romney and Democratic front-runners Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards, evangelicals are likely to side with Romney, said Mark DeMoss, a former aide to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell who now runs an Atlanta public relations firm.
“Without exception — and I’ve been talking to people in small groups and individually for almost a year — anytime I talk to somebody who had a strong objection or conviction toward supporting a Mormon, when I would say, ‘If the Republican primary comes down to Romney and, drop in any other name, what would you do then?’
“They say, ‘I would go with Romney,’ ” DeMoss said.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, is a life-long member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a worldwide church that, while Christ-based, is at fundamental doctrinal odds with mainstream Christians. Romney has been both bishop and “stake” president of his congregation in Belmont, Mass.
Romney has worked hard to persuade religious conservatives that their shared values — support of two-parent families, opposition to abortion and gay marriage — outweigh the deep theological differences that set the Mormons apart.
“I think in the final analysis, people want a person of faith to lead the country,” Romney said Thursday during his Columbia stop.
He insisted the particular flavor of that faith doesn’t matter. As a Mormon, he said, he shares the Judeo-Christian values of many other Americans.
Romney set out last year to persuade evangelicals, in small gatherings around South Carolina and other states, that they and he are aligned where it counts — on key social issues. That includes his now-avowed opposition to abortion, although he has been criticized for waffling on the issue.
Despite that effort, Romney still trails in South Carolina. While he has emerged as a leading candidate in Iowa and New Hampshire, two other key states, Romney’s S.C. campaign has not caught fire. Here, he is tied with Huckabee at 9 percent, behind front-runner Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain, in the latest S.C. poll.
“I don’t think any of the guys here agreed with him theologically,” said Joe Mack, public policy director for the S.C. Baptist Convention, who attended a breakfast with Romney last fall. “But they like where he stands on the issues.”
SUSPICION AND BLOODSHED
For evangelicals, the theological divide between themselves and Mormons is wide and unbridgeable. But the suspicion that dogged the Latter-day Saints for a century and a half has largely disappeared.
“Today, Mormons are more well-received, partly because it is a more tolerant society,” said Susan McArver, a professor of church history and director of the Center for Religion in the South at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia.
There are about 34,300 Mormons in South Carolina and nearly 13 million worldwide.
“My impression is that they have blended in quite well in the same way that other groups have blended into Southern culture,” including Roman Catholics and Jews, she said. “A lot of the values that Mormons hold are very friendly to Southern evangelical culture.”
Linda Franklin-Moore, a Kershaw County Mormon who ran twice for county council, said she never was asked about her faith.
She lost both times, but attributed that to being a Democrat in a GOP-dominated area. “I got more questions about being a Democrat” than about being a Mormon, she said.
Nonetheless, the historic saga of the Mormon church in America and its chief prophet, Joseph Smith, is steeped in suspicion, persecution and blood.
Born in Vermont in 1805, Smith claimed God and Jesus Christ revealed themselves to him in 1820, declaring all previous churches to be impostors and appointing Smith to restore the church, thus the phrase “latter-day saints.”
According to Smith, God unveiled gold plates, buried in a New York hillside, upon which the Book of Mormon, a history of ancient Christians in North America, was written.
As Smith gained followers, he also came under scrutiny for unorthodox beliefs, including additions to established sacred Christian scripture and his stunning revelation that God had ordained plural marriage, or polygamy.
Smith fled west, hoping to found a holy city of Zion, but he and his followers were unwelcome wherever they went.
Eventually, Smith and his followers left Missouri and moved to Nauvoo, Ill. There, Smith was imprisoned in July 1844 for destroying a dissident Mormon press that had printed a story decrying him as an adulterer. A mob stormed the jail in nearby Carthage, killing Smith and his brother Hyrum.
It was Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, who led Mormons to Utah, the land that would become the Mecca for modern-day Mormons.
With the admission of Utah into the union in 1896 and the abolition of polygamy, Mormons slowly became part of the established fabric of American life.
But McArver of the Center for Religion said the Mormon church’s belief that God still is unveiling new revelations beyond the established sacred canon and its claim to sacred texts beyond the Bible, including the Book of Mormon, set it apart.
There is no question a segment of evangelicals never will leap the obstacle of Romney’s faith, said Dee Benedict, a longtime Upstate GOP operative.
But Benedict, who now works as Romney’s evangelical outreach chairman in South Carolina, said she has been astonished at the warm reception Romney has received from conservative pastors.
Benedict met Romney last year and went from thinking “not a chance” to becoming a believer in his electability. Her conversion came after she arranged for about 80 conservative pastors to meet Romney at her Greenville mountain retreat last November.
“At the end of the day, I can tell you I was struck dumb at the favorable response he got,” she said.
And the conservative pastors?
“They know he (would not be) the pastor-in-chief,” Benedict said.
Huckabee, the familiar Southern Baptist, remains “the sentimental favorite” among the conservative pastors, Benedict said. But Benedict believes he has neither the machine nor the money to go the distance in a presidential campaign.
Ultimately, said DeMoss, the Atlanta consultant, “it’s a question of whether it is possible to be pragmatic without compromising your beliefs or values,” he said. “If I had a religious litmus test for candidates, Mike Huckabee would be my guy, but I think being president requires more than ‘you must believe (theologically) what I believe.’”
That’s the thinking of attorney Lamar Flatt, a Columbia Southern Baptist.
“I find him to be interesting and wouldn’t have any problem supporting a Mormon if he holds the views that I hold near and dear to my heart,” Flatt said.
“The friends I talk to are more concerned that Romney’s views on the issues are truly his views.”
Reach Click at (803) 771-8386.
ABOUT MITT ROMNEY
The former governor of Massachusetts is running for the Republican presidential nomination.
Family: Wife, Ann; five children
Education: Bachelors degree, Brigham Young University; masters of business administration, Harvard Business School; law degree, Harvard Law School
Elected positions: Massachusetts governor, 2003-07
Other: Chairman of the Republican Governors Association, 2006; chairman and chief executive, Salt Lake Organizing Committee, 2002 Winter Olympic Games; vice president and later CEO, Bain & Co. Inc., a management consulting firm; president and founder, Bain Capital