If former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney succeeds in capturing the Republican nomination for president, it will represent an opportunity to campaign for the most influential political post that a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has ever held in the United States.
Romney, as a former Mormon missionary in France, has always been active and passionate about his faith, and has drawn parallels between the church’s ideals and conservative politics. Among the church leaders of Decatur, however, there are a variety of opinions on what a Mormon candidate for president would mean to the nation’s religious landscape, and whether Romney would be able to effectively unite faiths that are doctrinally at odds.
“I don’t believe it would be surprising to see a Mormon candidate, and I’m certainly not going to give official support to any specific person running for office, but I think getting to this point was just a matter of time,” said Bishop John Gauthier of the Decatur First Ward of Latter-day Saints churches. “The church has been part of U.S. history for almost 200 years and represents a growing slice of American culture. It was bound to happen that someone from the group would find his way into this sort of position.”
Gauthier believes it would be a mistake to identify all or even most Mormons as leaning toward conservative political parties, but he agrees that aspects of the faith do have a tendency to coincide with traditionally conservative values.
“I think they mesh pretty well,” he said. “It’s a well-known fact that our long-standing priority is family values. That’s at the center of our lives. Fiscal responsibility is another issue. In some peoples’ minds, that connects members of this faith to conservative ideals. I think you’ll find, though, that most members of this church are very patriotic and want to take an active role in their government. Members of the church can be found in all walks of life and all levels of the government — there are close to 15 million Mormons worldwide and 6 million in the United States.”
As to whether a Mormon candidate like Romney would be able to overcome differences in doctrine and faith between himself and evangelical or mainline Christian voters, Gauthier believes it is a matter of priorities and values.
“Evangelicals are great and faithful people, and we respect them in their faith,” he said. “I think we agree on many moral and social issues that they hold dear. There are doctrinal differences that put us outside of what some would consider a ‘normal Christian faith’ that some would undoubtedly have a hard time getting past, but I believe if you find common ground, it could work. I can’t say more than that, I’m not a pollster.”
Leaders of evangelical Christian churches in Decatur called the issue a complex one, with Pastor Jerry Shirley of Grace Baptist Church admitting “there are really as many answers as there are pastors to ask.”
“In terms of morality, I think we’re going to agree on a lot of points with a potential Mormon candidate,” he said. “I think for each voter though, it depends on if their highest priority is voting for moral choices or another factor like economics or other policies.”
Still, Shirley said he also believed there would be aspects to a Mormon candidate that evangelical Christians would find difficult to swallow.
“I believe that there is a reason why we haven’t had a Mormon candidate in the past, and I also believe there’s another reason why we can have one today, due to the changing climate of acceptance and political correctness,” he said. “It’s no longer a fact that a Mormon couldn’t run for this office and win. At the same time, I believe that the evangelical movement could put anyone into office if they could all unite with one voice, but it’s just too divided and factioned.”
Senior Pastor Wes Feltner of Decatur’s Tabernacle Baptist Church believes that although the church a candidate attends is a factor that should matter to members of his faith, it is ultimately not the deciding factor when it comes to deciding who to support.
“I don’t think Mormonism would be a determining factor or deterrent if they agreed with the principles of the candidate,” he said. “From a conservative, evangelical perspective I would say a stance on issues of ‘what is marriage?’ and right to life would be more uniting than what church a candidate attended.”
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