GOP convention prayer choices debated: Who will Mitt Romney choose to pray?
Rogelio Solis, Associated Press
Spiritual leaders will give invocations and benedictions each day at the Republican National Convention. Will Mitt Romney ask anyone from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to offer a blessing?
Romney, who will be the first Mormon nominated for president by a major party, never discusses his church while campaigning unless the circumstances require it. Instead, he talks about "my faith" or "shared values" with voters.
Organizers are just starting to announce major speakers for the GOP convention, which begins Aug. 27 in Tampa, Fla. Mark DeMoss, an evangelical adviser to the Romney campaign, said details about religious leaders will be released about a week in advance.
Just like the political headliners, faith leaders usually are chosen to display as much diversity as possible while underscoring the candidate's story. In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain included a retired military chaplain who, like the candidate, was a prisoner during the Vietnam War, along with the pastor of the Southern Baptist church McCain attended in Arizona. Barack Obama accepted the Democratic presidential nomination between prayers from a rabbi from the liberal Reform branch of Judaism and an evangelical preacher, seeking common ground in the culture wars.
"I don't think there's anything to be gained politically by having a Mormon give an invocation," said Gary Smith, the author of "Faith and the Presidency" and a historian at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. "There are many roles that religious people can play in the convention. It would be less controversial to ask an esteemed Mormon friend or leader to do something else."
Any Mormon chosen for a ceremonial honor would be far from the first church member to perform a key role at the GOP national convention.
Mormons are overwhelmingly Republican and active in civic life. Latter-day Saints long have held top positions in federal government and political campaigns. At the 2004 GOP convention, President George W. Bush chose a prominent Mormon leader and author, Sheri Dew, to give an invocation. That wasn't a first either. When organizers announced the roster for the 1988 Republican convention that nominated George H.W. Bush, Mormon representatives were among the invited spiritual leaders.
As is customary at American civic events, prayers at the national political conventions largely avoid theological specifics. The messages are mostly directed to a generic God, using language spiritual enough to please voters of faith without alienating others.
Robert Millet, a Mormon scholar who advised Romney aides when the then-Massachusetts governor was considering his first presidential run, said Romney could ask a leader from his local church community in the Boston area to offer a prayer. In the 1980s and 1990s, Romney served as a bishop, or pastor, of his church in the Boston suburb of Belmont where he lives, then was stake president, which meant presiding over several congregations in the district. Mormons have no full-time paid clergy, and instead are led by an all-volunteer lay male leadership.
But given that the Romney campaign has shut down nearly all discussion of his faith, Millet said he wouldn't be surprised to see more evangelicals offering prayers from the convention stage. While some Christian conservatives have expressed reservations about Romney over his Mormon theology, they have overwhelmingly told pollsters they will vote for the Republican nominee.
"Most Mormons realize the last thing Romney wants people to begin thinking is that he's somehow going to allow Mormonism to impact his presidency," Millet said. "He just isn't going to talk Mormonism."
Convention officials did not respond to requests for comment, but it's likely any religious leader under consideration is getting a thorough vetting.
Doug Wead, architect of evangelical outreach for George H.W. Bush in 1988, had staff dedicated solely to deciding which religious figures should participate. Gallup polls were consulted and memos drafted analyzing who should speak, who should be in camera view and who should be out of the limelight.
"When the camera gets Barbara Bush, who would they see over her shoulder? We would rotate people in and out of there based on when we expected the TV camera would flash on the box where the family was sitting," said Wead, who is now an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Along with widely known clergy such as the Rev. Billy Graham, Wead invited professional athletes and others whose born-again backgrounds would generally only be known to other evangelicals.
"You're seeing a basketball player, not a born-again Christian. You're seeing someone in a mid-level Cabinet position, not a Nazarene," Wead said. "That's what I'm sure they'll do with Mormons. They'll have a Mormon in a position that the Mormons watching TV will say, 'Oh, there's Brother Jake.' Ninety-nine percent of viewers don't even see the person as Mormon."
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