Yes, a Mormon can win support from evangelicals and other Christians in a run for major office. I know. I've done it.
As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed “Mormons” or “LDS”), I served 25 years in elective office--14 of them as a U.S. Congressman--in Oklahoma, a Bible Belt state.
Evangelical Protestants form a majority of Oklahoma's population--double the national average--and tied with Arkansas for the largest percentage of any state, as reported by the Pew Forum on Religion. Mormons in Oklahoma are less than one-half of one percent.
In one campaign, my Democratic opponent ran television ads attacking my faith. She claimed that I would follow orders from church leaders rather than represent Oklahoma (the same canard raised by anti-Catholics during John F. Kennedy’s presidential race). The outlandish claim led ministers of several faiths, including evangelicals, to publicly condemn her advertising.
Thanks to our strong bond on faith-based issues, I enjoyed excellent personal and professional relationships with individuals and leaders of many other faiths.
I worked with the late Dr. Jerry Falwell, who told me how Mormons played a key role in his Moral Majority organization.
Dr. James Dobson shared with me his appreciation of Mormon leadership in protecting traditional marriage.
Dr. Richard Land and I knelt together and prayed in my congressional office, seeking common ground (which we found) on the text of a proposed Religious Freedom Amendment.
The late Dr. D. James Kennedy and I discussed our mutual commitment to Jesus Christ, who is my Lord, Savior and Redeemer. Oral Roberts University invited me to speak on campus.
I've shared a platform and dinner with Pat Robertson.
In conjunction with leaders from many diverse faiths, I worked ardently to protect innocent life from abortion, to promote traditional marriage, and to expand abstinence education. I spoke at many church services, and especially enjoyed those invitations to black congregations.
I worked with devout Jews and devout Muslims. My wife and I accommodated the faith-based needs of Muslim friends (a former Pakistan ambassador to the U.S. and his wife) who were guests in our home for a week.
Imams hosted our visit to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
I met with Israel's prime minister and re-affirmed my support for the special relationship between America and Israel.
I've met with Chinese leaders and urged them to be more accommodating of religious faiths.
Now I'm a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation, which stands strongly for religious freedom and traditional values. Heritage was a sponsor at the recent Values Voter Summit, where one minister chose to attack my faith. And where others, like Bill Bennett, condemned such attacks.
My experience is that, at least in politics, differences of faith are secondary to strong shared values on social issues such as life and marriage.
Was the Mormon label ever a political hindrance to me? Certainly. But it did not block my election to Congress, nor my winning the GOP nomination for governor of Oklahoma.
When I lost the general election, my biggest handicap was running against an incumbent governor during the prosperity of a major oil and gas boom—not religion.
Some question whether Mormons are Christians. We certainly are Christians, but doubters are free to believe otherwise. I always remind them that our church is named after Jesus Christ. My faith is lived up front, not in the background. I currently serve as bishop to an LDS congregation, an unpaid position within our lay ministry.
I believe our Constitution was divinely inspired. Its guarantee of religious freedom does more than require a grudging tolerance. Religious liberty provides us the opportunity to learn how, despite differences of faith, we can indeed work together. I know because I've experienced it.
Ernest Istook is a Distinguished Fellow in Government Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Istook is a former practicing attorney whose background also includes journalism. He served 25 years in elected office --from city council to the Oklahoma state legislature to the U.S. House. He first won public office after moving to Oklahoma in 1972 from his native Fort Worth, Texas.