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How Mitt Romney can talk about his faith and still win the White House

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May 12, 2012: Mitt Romney speaks at the Liberty University commencement ceremony in Lynchburg, Va. (Reuters)

Mitt Romney has avoided discussing electoral concerns about his Mormon faith. As a result, Mormonism remains the elephant in the political arena. Despite the protection of politics from religion by Article VI of the Constitution, religion has always played a role in American political life. Once Romney embraces this fact, he has an even stronger chance of winning the White House.

In politics, voters view a candidate’s faith as an indication of his/her moral character and trustworthiness—and they tend to feel more assured if a candidate’s values reflect their own.

According to a recent Religion and Research Institute survey, 70% of voters say it’s important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs. Of those voters 20% say it’s important for a candidate to hold the same religious beliefs as their own. It’s quite telling that the most recent Gallup Poll about a president’s faith indicated that 53% of Americans would not vote for an atheist.

For more than 50 years, Gallup polls have consistently reflected voter sentiment about Mormons—and about one fifth of the respondents say they will not vote for one. (An American National Election Studies report cites 35%.) Likewise, a recent University of Sydney study cites 33% of Evangelicals and 43% of liberal voters who say they are less likely to vote for a Mormon.

However, Mormonism doesn’t have to be the elephant in the political arena.

Romney has a great opportunity to convince many voters that he shares the same conservative values that they do. If he keeps emphasizing the religious liberty on which this country was founded, and the liberty this country continues to afford minority faiths, he’ll reach more voters.

It would be especially prudent for Romney to point to the example of former presidents whose faith, or alleged lack of faith, was a major campaign issue. While there are many, three examples suffice.

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson was accused of being anti-Christian. In fact, his opponents argued that a vote for John Adams was a vote “for God,” and a vote for Jefferson was a vote for “no God.” In response, Republicans portrayed Jefferson as a leader of tolerant of all religious beliefs. They sought to change the narrative of the election by focusing on his tolerance of religious freedom, rather than responding to questions about his unorthodox beliefs.

The campaign rhetoric had been so acerbic that when news of Jefferson’s win swept across the country, it was reported that many in Federalist New England were seen burying their Bibles or hiding them in wells because they were afraid they would be confiscated and burned by the new administration. 

It was within this context that Jefferson responded to a sympathetic letter he received from the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut. The Baptists were religious minorities, outnumbered considerably by the Congregationalists, who supported Adams. Jefferson wrote that he affirmed the Baptists’ commitment to religious liberty and used a phrase with which they were quite familiar: “separation of church and state.” Baptist minister Roger Williams had penned the concept of a “hedge of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the state” in 1644. The Supreme Court immortalized it in 1947.

In 1846, when Abraham Lincoln ran for Congress against Peter Cartwright, he repeatedly responded to claims that he was a “scoffer at Christianity” because he did not belong to a church. He penned a letter to the voters of the 7th congressional district, writing, “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular. I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion.”

At one point in the campaign, Cartwright held a revival meeting at which he admonished all attendants who intended to go to heaven to rise. Most stood. Then he called for those who wished to go to hell to stand. No one rose. Lincoln did not rise to either call. Cartwright asked him, “Mr. Lincoln, you have not expressed an interest in going to either heaven or hell. May I enquire as to where you do plan to go?" Lincoln replied, "I did not come here with the idea of being singled out, but since you ask, I will reply with equal candor. I intend to go to Congress." And to Congress, and later on to the White House, he went.

In 1960, JFK tackled concerns about his faith head on. He wisely addressed the fact that people were uneasy because no Catholic had ever been elected president of the United States—and that if he won, he would be the first. He differentiated what the real issues in the campaign should be about, and clarified the role that his faith would and would not play in his administration. In so doing, he alleviated any fears voters had about his faith.

These men were fearless about their beliefs or lack of conformity to the religious majority of the day. They did not avoid the reality that religion mattered to voters and courageously spoke their truth regardless of the political outcome. If Romney does the same, he’ll make history on Election Day in more ways than one. And the only elephant people will be talking about will be the GOP’s resounding win in November.

Bethany is a religious and political commentator who is also a practicing Evangelical Christian.