'Excommunicated' by GOP, Bob Bennett says Romney, religion, economy make 2012 election unique

Published: Saturday, Feb. 25 2012 6:00 p.m. MST

Former U.S. Senator Bob Bennett (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Former U.S. Senator Bob Bennett (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Editor's note: Click here to view the complete "At the Crossroads, Again" conference.

Sharing his "experiences of a practical politician, forcibly retired," former Sen. Robert Bennett told an interfaith conference of Mormons and Protestants in Washington, D.C., that the 2012 election is proving to be one unlike any in his lifetime, and Gov. Mitt Romney's religion is a key part of that.

Bennett presided over a discussion on religion and American political culture on the second and final day of a gathering of the Mormon Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy and the Wesley Theological Seminary, titled "At the Crossroads, Again: Mormon and Protestant Encounters in the 19th and 21st Centuries."

Coming a few minutes late because of a cold, Bennett joined Wesley Professor Shaun Casey and Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland. Bennett spoke candidly and criticized more extreme parts of his party, noting, "I have no need to worry about them because they've already excommunicated me from the party."

Given that the divisive Republican primary could lead to no nominee claiming victory at the national party convention — which nowadays typically serves as "nothing but a coronation" — President Obama will have an "easy victory" over whichever GOP candidate manages to be the last man standing, Bennett predicted.

But given the current bad economic climate, there's no historical precedent for Obama winning re-election, he continued.

"So I can make the case that no one will win," Bennett said to great laughter. "But obviously someone will."

And religion plays an unfortunate part of this. Bennett revealed that a political contact of his told him, "If Mitt Romney were Presbyterian, he would be the Republican nominee."

But religious prejudice is something that hardly confronts Mormons alone. From a soon-to-be-released study, Holland revealed that while 29 percent of Americans would not vote for a Mormon candidate for president, 27 percent likewise said they would not vote for an evangelical. Among Democrats, 47 percent said they would not vote for a Mormon, compared to 23 percent for Republicans.

As with most studies of this kind, the religions that face the harshest prejudice are Muslims (43 percent oppose) and atheists (40 percent oppose).

One political tactic some Republicans are currently using against the president is accusing him of a "war on religion," Casey said, noting that Romney avoids it.

"The biggest loser will be the LDS Church, independent of the political outcome," Casey said, noting it would be ironic for a member of a "maligned, minority religion" to pick up a weapon that had been used so frequently against him.

Given what a religious country America is, faith naturally shapes our politics, unlike in Europe, Holland observed, though that could change as increasing numbers of Americans continue to identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated.

While most religious people see that increase as a negative, it's actually an opportunity, Casey said, for evangelizing faiths to share their message with people of religious background but no active religious participation.

But politics was not the only topic of conversation at the interfaith conference. Vanderbilt University Professor Kathleen Flake and Southern Methodist University Professor Elaine Heath discussed the theological significance of gender in Mormonism and Protestantism.

Author of "The Gospel According to 'Twilight,'" Heath said she had a "conflicted response" to the popular series of novels by LDS author Stephenie Meyer. While the books depicts stark gender stereotypes and normative violence against women, they also offer positive Christian messages about chastity and a unity of different races, Heath said.

Scripting Bella, the human female character, as promiscuous, but Edward, the vampire male character, as chaste is "a move Jesus would make!" Heath said, noting that he loved to take cultural outsiders and make them the heroes of his stories (like the Good Samaritan).

Flake observed that the history of the LDS Relief Society was not uncommon in 19th Century America, where many "benevolent societies" were formed by women, in part because they were excluded from full participation in their respective religions. Of course if a society got too big, it was quickly subsumed by the male leader of the congregation, or pater familias, Flake said.

Wesley grad student Andy Millman, 23, worked with a group of Mormons and Protestants to plan the two-day conference.

"I think a lot of Christians say Mormons aren't Christian, but I disagree with that," Millman said. "Events like this can change that perception."

A key part of interfaith dialogue is acknowledging differences and then working toward common ground, rather than starting with discussions about common belief — which will lead to focus on differences, Millman continued. Helping the disenfranchised, though, is something all religious people agree on, he said.

A discussion on helping the needy and social justice concluded the conference.

Executing the missions to share the gospel and feed the hungry can often prove dilemmatic, said Frances Adeney of the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, "Because if people are hungry, they're not really going to be able to listen to the proclamation of the gospel," but luring people to baptism through hand-outs just creates "rice Christians."

Warner Woodworth of Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Management shared a quote from LDS founder Joseph Smith: "A man filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race."

Woodworth says his Christian attitude shapes his life. In addition to paying 10 percent of his income as a tithe to the LDS Church, Woodworth said he donates a "social tithing" of 10 percent of his time to valuable causes.

Charity also informs his teaching style. He tells his business students that "I work to convince them not to work on Wall Street and join Satan's cause. Of course it's futile."

One of Woodworth's students came to BYU as a staunch environmentalist who'd signed a "zero population-growth commitment," but then he joined the LDS Church and had five children.

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