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Mitt Skips The Mormon Moment

In South Carolina, he ignores the haters. He's the LDS Obama in more ways than one.

Posted on January 13, 2012, at 8:20 a.m. ET

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Republican presidential candidate former Governor Mitt Romney, left, greets the crowd after delivering his remarks at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. For the cultural conservatives at the summit, who care deeply about abortion, gay marriage and other social issues, pocketbook issues seem to matter more this year than pulpit preaching, and at least some are willing to embrace Romney, who many have long looked at skeptically for his reversals on some of their priorities and his Mormon faith.

GREENVILLE, South Carolina – It doesn't take many conversations in this Southern Baptist state to see why members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints complain of widespread discrimination. It's a place where Mitt Romney's religion faces regular questions from voters, a laboratory for the findings of a new Pew survey in which Mormons said they face more intolerance than African-Americans.

For some Americans, Romney's rise has brought with it an increased suspicion of his faith. It has also brought forward Mormons' own historic sense of discrimination. Spend some time in an LDS chapel and you’re bound to notice a theme of persecution running through the congregational chatter -- from outraged recaps of the latest Bill Maher rant, to somber tales of hardship endured by early Mormon pioneers.The religion's DNA is infused with a sort of outsider’s defensiveness that conditions its adherents to expect bias at every turn--and confront it for the sake of the faith.

But if combatting bigotry, and sometimes complaining about it, is part of the modern Mormon experience, someone forgot to tell Mitt Romney.

As a top-tier presidential candidate during the so-called "Mormon moment," Romney has been extremely reluctant to wade into the public debates surrounding his faith.

Exhibit A is the anti-Mormon broadside delivered by a Rick Perry supporter during last October's Value Voters' Summit. After introducing Perry at the event, Rev. Robert Jeffress drew a crowd of reporters to the outside lobby, where he assailed Mormonism as a non-Christian "cult" that should keep Romney out of the White House.

The LDS community erupted in fits of indignation, taking to Twitter and Facebook to defend the faith. When CNN's Anderson Cooper conducted a tough, scolding interview with Jeffress, the YouTube clip immediately went viral in the Mormon blogosphere.

But with the mainstream media coming to his defense, the candidate was content to quietly bask in what Slate's Dave Weigel called "a substance heretofore unknown to nature: sympathy for Mitt Romney." When Romney finally did address the situation, he went out of his way not to answer the claims directly. "I just don't believe that that kind of divisiveness based upon religion has a place in this country," he said broadly, calling on Perry to "repudiate" the pastor's remarks.

The Texas governor never quite got around to a full repudiation, and when a debate moderator pressed the issue a couple weeks later, Romney looked more uncomfortable on stage than his opponent did. As Perry repeated that he had already said he disagreed with the pastor's remarks and that he "can't apologize any more than that," Romney nodded his head furiously, urging the moderator to move on by insisting, "That's fine. That's fine."

Romney's approach to Mormon-centric controversies has long been out of step with his co-religionists'. In 1994, during his bid for the Senate in Massachusetts, Romney tried to deflect Ted Kennedy's public criticism of Mormonism by simply changing the subject. The strategy so frustrated his father, George, that he actually interrupted his son once during a press conference to voice offense at what he considered below-the-belt attacks.

"I think it is absolutely wrong to keep hammering on the religious issues. And what Ted is trying to do is bring it into the picture," George Romney interjected. (The Michigan governor's approach to Mormonism had been entirely different. As he explored his own presidential campaign in 1967 in Anchorage, Alaska, George Romney brought the traveling press along to Sunday morning services, The Washington Post's David Broder reported at the time.)

More recently, while many Latter-Day Saints were condemning the Broadway smash "The Book of Mormon" -- which lampoons the faith, South Park-style -- Romney fed an interviewer a focus group-friendly line about how he'd like to take the show in sometime. "It's a Tony-award winner, big phenomenon -- yeah, I want to see it someday," he said. "But I don't have a lot of time for Broadway shows."

None of this should be mistaken for a lack of commitment to his religion. Before entering politics, Romney served in several leadership capacities in the church, and Mormons in early primary states share anecdotal evidence that he still takes joy in meeting his fellow "saints" on the campaign trail.

Chris Cavarretta, of Stratham, New Hampshire, said his fellow Mormon friend met Romney last week at a campaign stop and told him to "choose the right"--a popular LDS slogan similar to "What would Jesus do?"

"His eyes lit up, and he said, 'Yes, always.'"

But Romney's reluctance to look like he's playing the victim is understandable. While some conservative figures like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann have proven adept at converting attacks on their faith into political points, the same rules don't apply to Mormonism.

For one thing, the battle lines aren't quite as neatly drawn: when you're taking fire from both secular entertainers and Baptist ministers, it often makes more electoral sense to raise the white flag than to declare war on everyone.

And if Romney were to speak up in instances when his church was being unfairly targeted, reporters might then expect him to answer other, more complicated cultural and theological questions -- and there would be lots of them. According to Pew, the gap in understanding is wide: the most common word Mormons used to describe their faith was "Christian," while the most popular descriptor employed by non-Mormons was "cult."

But while it's probably politically savvy, Romney's strategy also creates some unusual tension between the candidate and his faith community. While many Mormons see a Romney White House as their best shot at broad cultural acceptance, they also see that Candidate Romney is downplaying his religion in order to get there. Some Mormons understand this, but others wish he would use his megaphone to stand up for their shared beliefs.

Noah Feldman, a Harvard scholar who has studied Mormonism, said this is an age-old dilemma for minorities trying to achieve greater acceptance through political clout.

"There have always been two lines of thought on this," Feldman said. "There's one group that says the way you overcome prejudice is you do a little soft pedaling, and when he's president, he's still going to be the first Mormon president."

This philosophy has often been met with resistance from activist sectors of a given minority. For example, during the 2008 campaign, some black leaders -- like Cornel West and Travis Smiley -- questioned Obama's commitment to the black community, because he wasn't talking enough about issues that affect poor urban minorities.

But campaigning as a defender of the faith, or the race, isn't an obvious path to majority support. "One could say, 'I don't care if it takes another 50 years, I don't want to compromise,'" said Feldman. "I would strongly respect that view too, but patience might be necessary."

In Romney's case, there's not much risk of a widespread Mormon backlash to his under-the-radar approach to the faith. Some may not like it, but the Pew study shows that 86 percent of all Mormon voters view Romney favorably. (Jon Huntsman, who has described himself as a less orthodox Latter-Day Saint, only scores a favorability rating of 50 percent from his fellow Mormons.)

The year ahead may be a grueling one for Mormons but, said Feldman, "Mormonism has a history of winning over its critics."