NEW YORK — Mitt Romney is starting to open up a bit more about his lifelong commitment to Mormonism and his lay leadership in the church, following pleas from backers who say that talking about his faith could help him overcome his struggles to connect with voters.
"Who shares your values?" a recent Romney ad asked — suggesting that the Republican presidential candidate was the answer. "When religious freedom is threatened, who do you want to stand with?"
The commercial was the start of a broader Romney effort to emphasize values and religion as he courts undecided voters — in a nation where most people say they want a president with strong religious beliefs — to compete with President Barack Obama in a race that polls show is close. Romney invited reporters to Mormon chapel services with his family last Sunday in New Hampshire. And he has asked a fellow Mormon to give an invocation before he addresses the Republican National Convention next week.
Romney is the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major political party, and highlighting his faith carries risks, given that many Americans view Mormonism skeptically.
Even so, a small group of supporters and Republicans have long said the benefits could outweigh the drawbacks. They contend that Romney, whose attempts to reach voters on a personal level often fall flat, could help people get to know him better by highlighting this core part of his life.
Michael Gerson, who was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, wrote that Romney could "inject some authenticity— or at least some personality — into his campaign" by talking about his faith. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of people who know that Romney is Mormon are comfortable with his religion or don't consider it a concern.
Philip Barlow, a Mormon historian at Utah State University who worked alongside Romney when he was bishop in Belmont, Mass., said that trying to understand Romney without Mormonism would be like "watching a football game with half the players invisible."
"It's an essential strain to know, but it's so easily caricatured, more easily than the influence of his schooling and his family," Barlow said.
Religion — and specifically his decades of involvement in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — has shaped every aspect of Romney's life, from his family to his decades in private business and his political career. The former Massachusetts governor is from a prominent Mormon family, has donated millions to his church and its charities, and has volunteered countless hours to the Mormon community and others.
Yet, Romney has never been comfortable talking about his faith, and he has spoken only in the broadest terms about religion. His reticence has been understandable even though he's never explained it. Americans generally know little about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and often what they do know comes from critics. Every candidate, no matter his or her faith, has to weigh just how much to talk about God.
If a candidate goes overboard, "a lot of voters who are undecided could end up staying home," said John Green, director of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute for Applied Politics. Nineteen percent of respondents who know Romney is Mormon told Pew they're uncomfortable with his faith.
So Romney is treading carefully.
In a commencement address earlier this year at Liberty University, the evangelical school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Romney referred to "people of different faiths, like yours and mine, " but he never used the word Mormon. He also never talked about Mormonism when he quoted the Apostle Paul and spoke of the "comfort of a living God" in a statement of sympathy to the victims of the Aurora, Colo., shooting rampage. The new ad, Romney's most direct pitch yet to religious voters, includes images of stained-glass windows and photos of the late Pope John Paul II. But it does not directly mention Romney's own faith.
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