Why Gov. Romney should embrace his faith: Lisa Miller talks religion

Oct 13, 2011

In an open letter to Gov. Mitt Romney this week, religion columnist Lisa Miller urges the Republican presidential candidate to embrace -- and explain -- his Mormon faith while out on the campaign trail.

"Stop deflecting questions about your religion," Miller writes. "Stop trying to make your beliefs look like middle-of-the-road evangelicalism. These approaches only raise voters' suspicions and give them more reason to judge you a waffler. Embrace your faith. Explain to people how much the religious tradition of your grandfathers informs your values and character, and convince them that they have nothing to fear."

Does Mitt Romney need to do a better job of embracing and explaining his religion to voters? Miller discussed this topic and how religion impacts the news Thursday, Oct. 13 at 12 p.m. ET.

Why, in all the dialog or Romney's mormonism, are those in the news relying on evangelicals to say what mormonism is or isn't? Why is nobody getting answers or responses from an actual, practicing mormon?

There's all kinds of stuff out there by Mormons on what Mormonism is and isn't.

This On Faith post, for example, is by the head of public affairs of the LDS Church.


Which is most important; talk personal religion, or the national debt, the national budget and jobs?

The column says that there /are/ more important things to talk about than personal religion. But Romney has not come across as embracing his faith -- rather, he's tried to downplay/dodge it/act as though he's like any old midde-of-the-road evangelical. But that isn't true, and by trying to keep the influence of his religion on his character and experience out of the conversation, he's not capitalizing on the advantages of his Mormon background  -- and he's not pitching himself honestly.

Lisa - I appreciate the open letter you wrote to Gov. Romney as well as your open-mindedness towards his religion. I believe your advice is excellent for him, and would calm a lot of the negative reaction this topic brings him. I am also a LDS member, but that doesn't mean I will vote for Romney (or Huntsman) just because of a shared religion. I want the best candidate to defeat Obama, and if Romney uses his upbringing and family history to demonstrate his capabilities to lead the country back to where we should be, then I am all for it.

Thanks. Knowledge is the foundation for open-mindedness. All religions look weird from the outside.

I'm not a theologian by any stretch and can't exactly say with certainty that I know any Mormons personally, but I thought they were Christians because of the name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saint. It has Christ right in there.


Here is a good explanation of where the fault lines lie. This is by Richard Land, who is head of the ethics and religious liberty commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He explains why Christians such as Rev. Jeffrress wouldn't consider a Mormon to be Christian. He himself says in this piece that Mormonism "isn't Christianity. It's another religion like Islam."

But Mormons say they /are/ Christian.  Remember these same debates occurred between Catholics and Protestants 400-ish years ago: who's Christian and who's not?


If Romney were to entertain discussion regarding the LDS faith, it would only detract from his central message. There needs to be one focus right now, and that is the economy. Romney needs to spread the message that he is the Republican for the job, and that 4 more years of Obama in the Whitehouse would be an economic disaster. This is the way that he will get conservative Republicans behind him.

I think he can do both. I agree that the economy is the main issue in this religion. But as long as Gov. Romney appears to be afraid of engaging questions/conversation about his faith, people will be suspicious of it.


I think that it would be good for Mitt Romney to share how his faith provides his moral compass for honesty, family values, compassion, and hard work. Mitt has indeed demonstrated that these are his beliefs through the way his has lived his life and the manner in which he has conducted his campaign. Beyond that, there is no place in a presidential, or any other political campaign, for a discussion of religion. While there are some rabid evangelical pastors who persist in using Alynski tactics against Mitt, there is a substantial group of voters whose concerns would be put to rest if they more clearly understood Romney's moral values.

Agree. Conversations about religion in a presidential campaign go to questions about character and values. Voters want clues and insights into a candidates constitution, his makeup. In the case of Romney, religion is a big factor that explains why he is the way he is.

Why do the evangelicals think they get to define who is a Christian? Both Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints whose religion centers on Christ and whose congregants are encouraged to live their lives as Jesus taught his disciples to in the New Testament.

Agree. And think that's part of the problem. Romney needs to take the defining out of the hands of other people and do it himself. The point of the column is to say this: There's a great, all-American spin you can put on Mormonism to bring it out of the realm of "cultish" etc., and I think Gov. Romney would do well to frame his beliefs that way.

Evangelicals are a loud voice in politics. Loud voices are easier for the media to hear. Evangelicals also organize well, they can be difficult for politicians and the media. In my opinion, evangelicals are given wide berth until something so outrageous is said - like Mormons are a cult -- that someone finally has to say something.

There are also many more of them. Mormonism is a fast-growing religion worldwide -- very fast -- but remember there are only about six million of them in the U.S.  There are 60 million evangels.

Would Romney not be risking more harm than good by bringing more attention to religion? I imagine that more discussion on this topic could potentially further alienate conservative voters. My view is that Romney can't risk losing the Republican nomination right now. Once he is President, or even once he is the Republican nominee, he will have ample opportunities to discuss the LDS faith.

I don't see how he continues to evade this for another year.

There is no way a person seeking the Presidency can admit to taking The Book of Mormon literally, and I am certain Mr. Romney does not. However, the Republican party has been so taken over by biblical literalists (such as Creationists) that a Republican can't say "My religion is a source of personal strength and inspiration, but not a guide to public policy," (like Jimmy Carter did).

I think the jury is out on this question. The "Biblical literalists" as you call them are out there. But they've always been out there. I'm not sure they make up the majority of the Republican Party. According to "American Grace," the book published last year by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, Biblical literalism is actually declining in the U.S. Used to be almost 70 percent of Americans believed that the bible was the actual word of God, to be taken literally, word for word. Now it's closer to 30 pc. 

He says he is committed to his faith. You can find all you need to know at mormon.org. What else do you want him to say?

I want him to talk about his childhood, his parents, the way his religion informed his approach to values and to work and to his ambition. I think such a conversation would be revealing, and I think it would make people /like/ him more.

It would be interesting to hear what a modern man like Romney thinks about the Angel Moroni, the golden tablets, the seer stones in the stovepipe hat and other tenets that are among the differences from Christianity. A phrase from Carl Sagan's "Contact" comes to mind ---" if the atmosphere of primordial Earth had had traces of Lithium, would we have ever had any Prophets?"

How about the burning bush, the staff that turned into a snake, the red sea parting? How about a savior who was put to death, came back to life, and then sat down with folks and ate a meal? How about a prophet alone in a cave when he's taken by the throat by an Angel and commanded to Recite! All these stories strain credibility and yet few mock them as incredible. Right?

Embracing and selling those points as an asset is a good idea. In addition to global literacy and fluency with respect to missionary service, the idea of family values and patriotism is further exemplified by the high number of BYU grads working in government and particularly the CIA. They recruit actively on the BYU campus for the very values Governor Romney should tout--understanding other cultures through missionary immersion, foreign language, patriotism and devotion to country, honesty and loyalty, etc.--more passionate than many evangelicals, perhaps.

There's more, too, that's "typically Mormon" (as much as I hate generalizations) that can be pitched as assets. The incredible communitarian ethos -- Mormons take care of each other. They tithe. They volunteer. Right now, 4,000 Mormon retirees are abroad donig humanitarian service  -- clean water in the Congo, neonatal rescusitation in Cambodia and Thailand, improving gardening and agriculture in South and Central America.  Mormonism requires an extremely high level of engagement from its people, and there's much to be proud of there.

U.S. voters seem to like people who call themselves Christian, don't attend worship services weekly, show up at a Christian (not Catholic) house of worship on Christmas, and ask that God Bless America. Will this profile ever change?

It is true that Americans like a kind of generic religiosity in the White House. They want their president to be religious, but not /too/ religious. I think Romney -- personal opinion here -- is probably among the most devoutly religious candidates we've seen in a long time. He was a Bishop of his ward, which is a lay leadership role, but a big one. Like a full time job, on top of a full time job.

I don't need to hear an explanation of his religious upbringing, how it impacted his values etc. etc. That seems to assume that a religious upbringing somehow makes people more decent or moral, which is patently untrue. I only care about someone's religion if they are a nutjob about it, like Michele Bachmann, who clearly planned to use her belief as a club with which to shape policy. There constitutionally isn't a religious sniff test that one has to pass in order to hold office and I am sick to death of this need our country has to force candidates through a Christian filter. Romney probably will have to speak about Mormonism in response to calls like yours to do so, but he shouldn't have to.

People want to know about religion because it gives them clues into a candidate's character. Not because there's a "sniff test." Just like they want to know about upbringing, education, business experience, etc. My educated hunch is that Romney's religion was foundational to his upbringing and character (my colleague Jon Darman wrote about this in Newsweek during the 2008 campaign) and it would help candidates to like him better and not fear Mormonism if he came out with it.

The guys I know say they would vote for the Mormon over the Muslim. Yeah, I know.

what about the atheist?


Lisa, you posted that you think Romney isn't "pitching himself honestly" because he's downplayed his religion and acted like "any old middle-of-the-road evangelical." What makes you think he's acting as an evangelical? Don't you think he's just building on common values of the groups, rather than focusing on the different teachings?

I think he needs to do both. He needs to articulate Mormonism's distinctiveness and his pride in it and also build on the common values of all conservative religious people. I think he'll have better luck doing the latter if he also does the former.  When he says stuff like  "Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior" it looks like he's not making distinctiosn between his own religion and the religion of the evangels in the Republican base. Even if it's true. He's eliding the differences, and not convincingly. My point is that some of his distincitve, personal religious history is really great. And he should honor that.

Does Mr. Romney believe that anyone that is not Christian is going to hell? If not, does he not take the Bible to be completely true? You can't pick and choose which parts of a religion you identify with. If you do, you are your own religion.

Mormonism is actually fairly universalist in its vision of afterlife. There are three levels of heaven. And even "bad" people go to one of the levels (the lowest). Observant Mormons go to the highest. So damning to hell isn't really a Mormon thing.

ok, that's it for me. see you next week.

In This Chat
Lisa Miller
Lisa Miller is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the author of "Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife." She was a senior editor at Newsweek, overseeing the magazine's religion coverage, writing the weekly "Belief Watch" column and editing Newsweek's prominent "Spirituality in America" double issue.

Before joining Newsweek, Miller covered religion for The Wall Street Journal. She has also worked with The New Yorker, Self magazine and Harvard Business Review.

An award-winning journalist, she is the recipient of the 2010 Wilbur Award for outstanding magazine column. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, including the Colbert Report, the O'Reilly Factor, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, NPR and others.
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