Concerns about Romney's faith quieter but not gone

By Rachel Zoll

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 16 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, hands back seven-month-old Ellen Whitaker as he campaigns at American Legion Post 15 in Sumter, S.C., Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

GREER, S.C. — The second time around, the shock has worn off.

The prospect of a Mormon president appears to be less alien to South Carolina Republicans who are giving Mitt Romney a second look after his failed White House bid in 2008.

Still, worries about his faith persist in a state where one pastor jokes there are "more Baptists than people." Voters preparing for the Jan. 21 presidential primary are weighing whether Romney's religion should matter so much when they cannot pay their bills and a Democrat many distrust occupies the White House.

"Although Romney's faith is still a matter of some discussion, it is less of a political problem for him than it was in 2008," said Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, in South Carolina's conservative upstate. "Most Republicans have a generally positive view of Romney, even evangelical Christians."

Four years ago, the Romney campaign directly took on suspicion about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Conservative Christians, including Protestants and Roman Catholics, do not consider Mormons to be Christian, although Mormons strongly do.

The former Massachusetts governor courted evangelical pastors and formed a national faith-and-values steering committee. Romney gave a major 2007 speech in Texas, modeled on John F. Kennedy's pivotal 1960 address on Catholicism, that promised "no authorities of my church or of any other church for that matter" would influence his policies.

This time, Romney has no formal religion committee and rarely mentions his faith unless asked.

In an appearance Thursday in a motorcycle dealership in Greer, he said the election was about "the soul of America" and described the national debt as a moral issue. He called "America the Beautiful" a "national hymn." (The music was, in fact, originally composed by a church organist for a hymn.)

The only direct mention of religion at the event came from the South Carolina state treasurer, Curtis Loftis. In a speech introducing Romney, Loftis noted that he was a Baptist.

By contrast, at South Carolina barbecue joints and churches, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been giving what evangelicals call personal testimony of how he accepted Christ at age 14.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a social conservative and Roman Catholic who's sometimes mistaken for an evangelical Protestant, recently asked an audience in Greenville to pray for his campaign.

"It's a tough battle every day out there," Santorum said. "And we need that hedge of protection."

Appeals like these are almost expected in a state where Christianity is so much part of daily life.

As Romney arrived in Columbia for the first time since his New Hampshire primary victory, churches around the state were welcoming families for the weekly food, fellowship and Bible study that is a Wednesday night tradition in evangelical churches throughout the South.

In 2008, 60 percent of Republican voters in the South Carolina primary identified themselves as born-again Christians, according to exit polls.

Underscoring the focus on religion in this state, if not the skepticism about Romney's faith, the second question from the audience at a town hall-style event in Hilton Head on Friday was whether he believes "in the divine saving grace of Jesus Christ?" His answer: "Yes, I do."

Oran Smith, president of the Palmetto Family Council, a conservative policy group based in Columbia, said the state "is sort of an evangelical-permeated culture."

Smith said South Carolina "is strongly influenced by very large churches. Even for those who just go to church for the ritual of it, the values people preach have become part of people's worldview."

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