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Campaign advisers spin faith into values for Obama and Romney

Published: Sunday, Oct. 7 2012 1:31 p.m. MDT

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gets out of his vehicle before he boards his campaign plane in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

BETHESDA, Md. — Faith outreach advisers for President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney would rather not talk about the religion of their respective candidates.

They prefer to steer the conversation toward values and whether those values align with the voters they are trying to mobilize.

"I feel strongly that you shouldn't elect someone because of his faith," said Mark DeMoss, a Southern Baptist and public relations man who advises the Romney campaign on the evangelical community. "It would be like only patronizing Christian businesses" because you're a Christian.

That's not to say Romney's Mormon faith hasn't been an issue when DeMoss has met with evangelical leaders and their followers. He explained that he has spent the past six years persuading evangelicals to judge Romney by his values and competency to be president.

"It's more important that we share values than theology,” DeMoss said. "I would say as a conservative evangelical I have more in common in values with Mormons than I would with a liberal Southern Baptist."

The exchange among campaign advisers took place Friday at the annual meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association. Some columnists and bloggers have expressed frustration during much of the election season that neither candidate, particularly Romney, has opened up much about his personal faith, leaving unanswered questions on a topic that polls have said is important to voters.

For Obama, his Christian faith was vetted during the 2008 campaign. But recent surveys indicate the president can't shake the perception that he is Muslim. Still, the campaign contends it's a non-issue.

"The president doesn't feel it's his responsibility to convince people about his religiosity," said Michael Wear, national faith vote coordinator. "He has said he’s a Christian."

Both Wear and Broderick Johnson, a senior Obama adviser who also coordinates Catholic outreach, said Obama has talked about his faith journey since 2004 and how it informs his life, so they don't spend time elaborating on it.

"What I do on a daily basis on Catholic outreach is making sure that Catholics understand that Barack Obama leads with values that are very consistent with those of Catholics," Johnson added.

DeMoss said a candidate's personal faith can be instructive to voters as long as they don't draw conclusions based on "simple labels."

"The problem is two people with the same label can have diametrically different politics. Romney and (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid both carry the Mormon label and have very different politics," he said.

Candidates choosing not to discuss details of their faith hasn't kept the news media from trying to explore how Mormonism has influenced Romney. But Mormon scholars who are often sought out by journalists for comment said the stories too often focus on peculiarities of the faith and don't draw relevant connections to Romney's candidacy.

"Not once has a reporter asked me about the defining elements of my faith," said Terryl Givens, a professor at the University of Richmond, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and oft quoted commentator about Mormonism, during a Saturday panel discussion. "All I get are questions about the oddities."

Givens said Romney's decision to avoid taking about his faith is the same thing John F. Kennedy did when his Catholicism became an issue in 1960. In Kennedy's landmark speech before Protestant ministers in Houston, he declares his allegiance to the separation of church and state and "refuses to indulge their the curiosity into (his) Catholic beliefs," Givens said.

"I personally don't know if Romney made a good decision to be as reticent about his faith as he has been," Givens said. "I would insist that's his prerogative and it's unfair to insist that America deserves some kind of insight into his faith through him."

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