Race, religion collide in presidential campaign

By Rachel Zoll

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Then there's bald racism. This April, bar owner Patrick Lanzo in Paulding County, Ga., posted a roadside sign outside his establishment that used the n-word to convey his disdain for the president. "I don't feel bad about (the sign) whatsoever," Lanzo told Fox 5 news in Atlanta.

Obviously, Obama's victory in 2008 did not put racial issues to rest. "He is never on stable ground, racially," Wadsworth observed.

Romney, too, has tried to push past anti-Mormonism, with mixed success. His membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been an issue his entire political career.

In 2007, during his primary battle against John McCain, he gave a speech to quiet concerns about his faith. "I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith," Romney said in the speech, which used the word "Mormon" only once.

There continue to be blatant expressions of hostility toward Mormons — there is an "I Hate Mormons" page on Facebook, where one Colleen Anderson posted that "Mormons are just brainwashed freaks" on April 4. But J.B. Haws, a historian at Brigham Young University who researches public perception of the Mormon church, said most common suspicions about Mormons have already been rehashed in the last election and this year's GOP primary, so moving forward the discussion is likely to be more substantive and informed.

"But that doesn't change the fact that the questions will still be tough and pointed," Haws said.

The Mormon church was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, who said God directed him to restore the true Christian church by revising parts of the Bible and adding the Book of Mormon as a sacred text. Smith said an angel directed him to a buried holy book in upstate New York, written on golden plates, which he translated from "reformed Egyptian" into the Book of Mormon. Theological differences have led many Christians to conclude that Mormons are not part of historic Christianity.

There's the issue of polygamy — though the Mormon church renounced the practice in 1890. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, recently took the opportunity of a Daily Beast interview to say that Romney's father, George, was "born into (a) polygamy commune in Mexico." (Mitt Romney's grandfather, Gaskell, had one wife, but his great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, had four and fled to Mexico in 1885 to escape U.S. anti-polygamy laws.)

There have been gibes directed at Mormon rituals. In February, when Romney decried the fact that the rate of out-of-wedlock births for "certain ethnic groups" was high, New York Times columnist Charles Blow tweeted, "I'm a single parent and my kids are amazing! Stick that in your magic underwear."

One of the toughest questions will likely focus on the Mormons' former ban on men of African descent in the priesthood. When the church lifted the prohibition in 1978, leaders didn't explain the theology behind it. That left questions about church doctrine on race, even though Mormon leaders repeatedly denounce racism.

It's an issue that Mormons discuss among themselves. But when it's brought up in a campaign setting, many Mormons say it's just an attempt to embarrass Romney.

Several conservatives have recently predicted that liberals — rankled by Mormon opposition to gay marriage and emphasis on stay-at-home motherhood — would use religion to "smear" Romney. "It's way out of bounds, but that's what's going to happen," said the Mormon senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

But liberals are not the only ones who are suspicious of the Mormons. Vice President Joe Biden told Esquire magazine that faith shouldn't be a factor in elections, so "that's why I'm so angry about the way they're treating Romney." By "they," Biden was likely focusing on evangelicals, who make up a big part of the GOP base.

When Liberty University, the school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, announced Romney as commencement speaker, hundreds of angry comments were posted on Liberty's Facebook page by people who said they were students or alumni, objecting to giving a Mormon a platform. The school responded by affirming its welcome to Romney.

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