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Romney, Speaking of Faith

Mormons in the Boston area are welcoming Mitt Romney's decision to address his religion in a special speech on Thursday.

The former Massachusetts Governor's faith was not an issue in this state but it is perceived as one for a key constituency in Republican presidential caucuses and primaries.

WBUR's politics reporter Fred Thys has more on local opinion.

Audio for this story will be available on WBUR's web site later today.

TEXT OF STORY:

FRED THYS: In the second-most Catholic state in the country (after Rhode Island), Mitt Romney defeated a Catholic, Shannon O'Brien, in the race for governor. He religion was never an issue in the race or when he ran the state.

ALAN WOLFE: No.

THYS: Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

WOLFE: In our state, Massachusetts, I don't think anybody cared one way or the other.

THYS: And in all the times that I've followed Romney in New Hampshire, only one voter ever asked him about his religion. Despite that fact, Wolfe believes that Romney's faith will be an issue in New Hampshire.

WOLFE: Because in New Hampshire we're not talking about New Hampshire. We're talking about Republicans in New Hampshire. We're talking about the Republican primary, and beginning in about 1984, the Republican Party of the United States of America decided to impose a religious test on its candidates for national office. The Constitution, in Article VI, forbids a religious test for office, but there's nothing to prevent a political party from imposing one on its nominees, and that's what the Republican Party has all but done.

THYS: Of course, that didn't prevent the Republican Party from nominating George Herbert Walker Bush and Bob Dole as its presidential candidates, notwithstanding the fact that they pretty much never discussed their religion.

WOLFE: But the issue of Romney's faith, and whether Mormons are Christians, has come up on the campaign trail this year. A Des Moines Register poll released Sunday finds former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is now ahead of Romney in the Iowa caucus race. Huckabee is running as a Christian leader, and he's seen as winning over the evangelical Christians Romney has been wooing for two years. In last week's CNN/You Tube debate, moderated by Anderson Cooper, Romney was asked if he believes every word in the Bible, and he seemed uncomfortable with the question.

MITT ROMNEY: (Nervous laughter) I believe the Bible is the word of God, absolutely, and I try to live by it is well as I can, but I miss in a lot of ways, but it's a guide for my life and for hundreds of millions, billions of people around the world. I believe in the Bible.

ANDERSON COOPER: Does that mean you believe every word?

ROMNEY: Uh....you know...yeah... I believe it's the word of God. The Bible is the word of God. (silence) I mean, I don't want.... I might interpret the word differently than the way you would interpret the word, but I believe... I read the Bible and I belive the Bible is the word of God. I don't disagree with the Bible. I try to live by it.

THYS: Mormons also believe that the Book of Mormon is the word of God. Mormons believe that Mormon was a seventh-century American prophet whose book was discovered and translated by the prophet Joseph Smith in upstate New York in the nineteenth century. Grant Bennett is a Mormon who lives in Belmont, where Romney lives.

GRANT BENNETT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a Christian Church. We believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is actually a restoration, or reinstatement, of the Church as practiced by Jesus Christ when he was on the Earth roughly 2000 years ago, so in short, we believe the Church mirrors the Church as organized by Christ when he lived on the Earth.

THYS: Bennett is glad that Romney is going to devote an entire speech to his religion, because he believes it will clear up some misconceptions that people may have about Mormons.

BENNETT: Just reading the newspaper, I see there are many fundamental inaccuracies relating to the relationship between a member of the Church and the Church itself, and I find my religion teaches me a number of core values, but quite frankly, stays out of politics.

THYS: That sentiment is shared by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a University Professor at Harvard. She's an expert in early American history perhaps best known in popular culture for coining the phrase "well-behaved women seldom make history". She, too, is a Mormon, and she points out that, unlike other religious leaders, during the entire gay marriage debate in Massachusetts, local Mormon leaders stayed neutral.

LAUREL ULRICH: There was no effort to organize any political action, nor in fact to tell people how they should behave if this came up for a vote, or how they should approach this issue politically. My memory of this is they said: "You should be prayerful and exercise your rights as citizens."

THYS: lrich is a Democrat, and no supporter of Mitt Romney, but she welcomes his decision to clarify some misconceptions that people may have about the religion they share.

This program aired on December 4, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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