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NY Times debate: Republicans ready for a Mormon president?

Published: Tuesday, July 5 2011 5:08 p.m. MDT

As part of its regular "Room for Debate" feature, the New York Times is posing the question, "Are Republicans now ready for a Mormon president?" and asking 10 different correspondents to provide essays with their thoughts and insights.

"With two Mormon candidates in the 2012 Republican presidential primary race, will it be easier or harder for one of them to win the nomination?" the Times asks in the introduction to its feature. "Do Republican voters care more about their candidates' policies . . . than their religion?"

The 10 correspondents who comment — and their key points — on the issue are:

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, who suggests that "President Obama and his policies are so deeply unpopular with a majority of these voters that more of them would be likely to 'hold their nose' and vote for a Mormon, if he were indeed the GOP nominee, against the incumbent president."

Damon Linker, commentary editor of Newsweek/The Daily Beast and author of "The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders," who takes the position that "evangelicals stack the deck in such a way that a Mormon, whether deeply devout or selectively observant, is unlikely to receive the GOP nomination, regardless of the policies he or she supports."

Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, who says that polling data indicates that "being a Mormon is hardly an asset for presidential candidates, but it is not a deal-breaker for most Americans."

A collaboration of Sarah Barringer Gordon, professor of law and history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jan Shipps, professor emerita of religious studies and history at Indiana University-Purdue University, posits that "the key for (Mitt) Romney and Jon Huntsman will be to walk the tightrope between belief and politics with dignity and openness."

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, believes that if either of the two Mormon presidential candidates "fall short, it will have a lot more to do with health care (in Mr. Romney's case) or same-sex marriage (for Mr. Huntsman) than either man's religious faith. Both men have taken positions on issues fundamentally at odds with a majority of registered Republicans, and much larger percentages of GOP party regulars oppose them on those policy matters than voice concerns about the Mormon religion."

Robert Michael Franklin, president of Morehouse College, recommends that the two Mormon presidential candidates "address the concern thoughtfully, patiently and persuasively so that voters, in this case religious Republican voters, feel that they needn't worry any more about it."

R. Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, writes that while "hardline fundamentalists remain anti-Mormon (and anti-Catholic, for that matter)," Mormons "have been good for the politics now defined as conservatism. More than ever before, Republicans may be ready to give them their due."

Russell Arben Fox, director of the political science program at Friends University and an editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, thinks that Huntsman may have an advantage because he "doesn't have the legacy of a previous run for president shaping his campaign freeing him to craft different responses to Republican primary demands, moderately employing his Mormon identity while still drawing on the socially conservative reputation of the faith."

Kathleen Flake, associate professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University, speculates that "if Mr. Huntsman rides his Harley far enough; talks of rock 'n' roll and global warming once in a while; and appears often enough with his globally religious, blended family, young evangelicals may be won over and even bring with them a few of their parents."

And Christopher Karpowitz, assistant professor of political science at BYU, points out that "the LDS Church is a worldwide religion whose members hail from diverse backgrounds. Principles consistent with LDS beliefs can be found in both parties, not to mention different wings of the Republican Party. In today's Senate alone, the political gap between the tea party favorite Mike Lee and Majority Leader Harry Reid, both members of the LDS Church, is wide. The opportunity to observe a diverse set of Mormon presidential candidates is healthy for both the country and members of the LDS Church."

Meanwhile, Boston Globe columnist Joanna Weiss mixes her view of the concurrent Romney and Huntsman presidential candidacies with a perspective gleaned from "The Book of Mormon" musical now on Broadway.

"For both Romney and Jon Huntsman, the path to the presidency is the same: appease evangelical Christians to win the GOP nomination, then assuage social liberals in a general election," Weiss writes. "

Her recommendation to both candidates is that they follow the example of how the LDS Church responded to "The Book of Mormon" musical.

"The church's official statement about the show was benign, and even slyly evangelical," Weiss wrote, suggesting that it would be wise for the LDS candidates to emulate that manner and tone.

"The best way to prove that you're like everybody else," she says, "is to show that you can take a joke."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com

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