Romney Faces Questions over Faith in S. Carolina

Recent polls show Mitt Romney leading in the race for the Iowa and New Hampshire Republican primaries, but the presidential candidate may face a bigger test in South Carolina, where his Mormon faith will come face-to-face with the GOP's powerful evangelical base.

In Greenwood, in the western part of the state and in Charleston, farther south, people who admire Romney's values are some of the same people concerned about his faith.

At a women's Bible study class at the Cooper East Baptist church in Mount Pleasant, Melanie Lott said she was born in Utah and considers Mormonism a cult.

"I know a little bit about Mormonism and there's absolutely no way that I could vote for Mitt Romney because of that," she said. "It's not a Biblical-based, Judeo-Christian religion. It's a cult."

Questions of Electability

"Cult" is a word used frequently here when the subject of Mormonism comes up. People say they are also concerned about other issues surrounding the Mormon Church, such as its attitude toward race.

"Buster" Brown, the pastor of Cooper East Baptist church, said in his view Mormons are "desperately wrong" in their understanding of Jesus Christ and spiritual salvation. He also worries whether a Mormon candidate is electable.

"In the general election, what concerns me is that if Romney is the nominee ... I fear that some of the issues that are really endemic to Mormonism, i.e., polygamy ... could really torpedo," him, Brown said.

Religious historian, Kathleen Flake of Vanderbilt Divinity School, who is a Mormon, said the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the church is formally known, does have a history of racism against African Americans. Given the governance of the church, however, she said that once the leadership announced the change, discrimination was gone, in doctrine and in practice.

On the question of cults, Flake said the main source of mistrust is the Book of Mormon. Published in 1830, it is considered by followers to be an extra-Biblical testament of Jesus Christ. Evangelicals, however, believe the Bible is the last word — indeed the only word.

"People who believe that revelation ended with the Bible are going to look at groups that have new canon, they are going to call that cultish, by definition," she said.

Mormons do have very different ideas about heaven and how to get there, as well as the nature of God and the nature of Jesus. But Flake points out there are differences among Protestants on doctrine, differences among Catholics and between Christians and Jews.

Romney Over Hillary

Most of these people who raised concerns about Romney's Mormonism will not vote for him in the South Carolina primary. But they might vote for him in November because of his anti-abortion stance — especially if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee.

Hal Lane, a senior pastor at West Side Baptist in Greenwood, said his congregation is "really looking for someone who holds to orthodox, traditional Christian beliefs."

In the case of Romney, he said, his Mormonism "would not make him our first choice."

The bottom line for many potential voters seems to be whether Romney's position on abortion is heartfelt. Charla Fowler, a member of the women's Bible study class at Cooper, said her concern is that the former Massachusetts governor has changed his position on abortion.

"Instinctively, they don't like that," Fowler said. "I think it's weird to say I'm going to call myself a conservative but yet you've failed to embrace the things that conservatives agree with. Why are you calling yourself a Mormon, and you've stood staunchly on that, if you're not going to defend your beliefs?"

Romney has said his staff does not want him to make a major speech on his Mormonism akin to what John F. Kennedy did to ally fears about his Catholicism when he ran for president.

Flake said Romney's problem with talking about his faith is that it "sucks all the air out of the room."

"It doesn't give him a chance to talk about himself as a person other than a person of faith," she said.

"Mormonism has never had the benefit of a calm, public discussion about its beliefs," Flake said. "When Mitt Romney says 'Jesus is my savior,' people say that can't be true because Mormons are just too different."

Romney might discover a pitfall of competing for the traditional values voters. Those voters traditionally reject candidates with religious values too different from their own.

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