What Mitt Romney Believes

The Republican presidential contender will deliver a speech tomorrow explaining his faith, after recent political attacks on Mormonism.

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

Tomorrow, Mitt Romney is set to deliver what might be the defining speech of his presidential campaign - kind of his come-to-Jesus moment, or maybe it could be called his come to Joseph Smith moment. Romney will explain to a select audience in Houston just how his Mormon faith fits into his political life.

A lot has been made out of this rift between evangelical Christians and Mormons, many of whom, by the way, prefer to actually be called Latter-day Saints.

Romney's challenge is often compared to that of JFK, who ran to become the first Catholic president. Well, how did JFK handle it? Well, he met with a select audience in Houston in 1960, and he told them this.

President John F. KENNEDY: I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish, where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source.

BURBANK: Here to talk with us about Romney's big speech tomorrow is Stephen Prothero, head of Religious Studies at Boston University and the author of "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn't." Hi, Stephen.

Professor STEPHEN PROTHERO (Chair, Religion Department, Boston University; Author, "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn't"): Hi. How are you?

BURBANK: Great.

This has been, you know, something that's been talked about since before Mitt even threw his name into the ring for this. The question was: Could a guy running as a Republican candidate win when evangelicals - a lot of them take a sort of suspicious view of the Mormon faith. Is this something that he can sort of fix with this speech tomorrow?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PROTHERO: Well, it obviously depends on what he says, I think, that's going to really tell. I mean, there is a lot of problems that secular Americans have with Mormonism, seeing it as a cult. And then there's problems that Evangelicals have with Mormonism, seeing as a kind of counterfeit Christianity. So I think he has to address, you know, the issue of his own personal faith, issue of whether Mormonism is a kind of mainstream Christianity. And then he's obviously going to address this issue that Kennedy brings up about America as a place of religious tolerance.

BURBANK: Yeah, I was going to ask even more sort of a more detailed description of what do you think he's going to exactly say?

Prof. PROTHERO: Well, I think he needs to talk about those three things. I think he needs to talk about himself as a person of faith, but not a religious fanatic. And he - probably the best way to do that is to talk about the ethos of Mormonism he was raised in. In other words, talk about its values instead of its controversial doctrines and mythology. And then, I think secondarily, he needs to talk about Mormonism and talk about how Mormons love Jesus, how Mormonism is a form of Christianity, how it's not heretical. It's not a cult. I mean, he can't get into too much of that, because he can't start, you know, talking about what Mormons believe about other worlds and God having a body and things like that.

But he needs to say something about Mormonism as a kind of Christianity. And then I think he needs to echo, you know, JFK, when JFK said, you know, I believe in an America where religious tolerance will someday end. He needs to appeal to sort of the better nature of Americans and our traditions of religious tolerance and say, we've figured out a way to integrate Catholics into the mainstream. Why can't we figure out a way to integrate Mormons into the mainstream, too?

BURBANK: What is a kind of - from a, you know, a dogma standpoint, what is the problem that a lot of evangelicals and others have with the Mormon faith? Is it the fact that the Book of Mormon is sort of put on the same level as the Bible? What exactly is it?

Prof. PROTHERO: Well, the Book of Mormon is a big deal, because for Evangelicals, certainly, they believe that the Bible isn't just a word of God, but the sufficient and only word of God. And so the fact that Mormons do put the Book of Mormon, not just really parallel to the Bible, but, in some ways, above it, because they admit, most of them - although Romney denied this the other day - most Mormons admit that there are some problems with the Bible as we have it today. So, that issue of revelation is really important.

And then the centrality of the Bible is also challenged by the belief that Mormons have an ongoing revelation, where their prophets and presidents can get revelation directly from God and makes statements that become, essentially, like scripture. So those are both issues. And then, in terms of the notions of God, I mean, Mormons believe typically that God has a body. They believe that human beings can somehow become gods. They believe in baptism of the dead. And then they have this whole mythology about Jesus - after he was raised from the dead and before he ascended to heaven - coming to North America and establishing his church and leaving behind followers who left behind tablets that were found in New York and dug up by Joseph Smith in the 1820s, and all that stuff is problematic for Evangelicals.

BURBANK: I don't know if you actually know this number, but do you know how many - roughly, how many Mormons there are in the U.S.?

Prof. PROTHERO: There's about six million, about 12 million worldwide.

BURBANK: I also have read that Mitt Romney is getting some grief from certain quarters of Latter-day Saints because, you know, they feel like he's kind of watering down his LDS, you know, bonafides to try to appeal - he's selling out, as it were. Is that something he needs to be worried about?

Prof. PROTHERO: Well, I think so. I mean, I think so. You know, just as there's the accusation that Mormonism is counterfeit Christianity, there's the problem that maybe Romney's talking a kind of counterfeit Mormonism, you know? When he was asked the other night about the Bible, the more straight ahead Mormon answer would be, well, there's problems with the Bible. The Bible is, to some extent, corrupted, and that's part of why we needed the Book of Mormon. So, yes, Mormons are - Mormons have always had this play between are we outsiders or are we insiders?

Are we - do we want to be part of the American mainstream, or do we want to be distinct? And they have never quite figured it out. There's always been a dance there. And Romney is now pushing the side that says, hey, we're ordinary Americans. We're mainstream Americans. Our values are your values. You can trust us. And that's the political thing to do, but some Mormons who want to press distinctiveness are saying, hey, you know, what about the distinctive things that we believe and we do? Let's not give up on that.

BURBANK: A lot has been made out of the infighting within what's called the religious right, which usually tends to mean evangelical Christians in America, as a voting block. Is this still a powerful enough group that it's something Romney needs to worry about?

Prof. PROTHERO: Well, certainly, in the - for the Republican nomination. I mean, the question now that's arisen after 2006, particularly, is how strong really are the Evangelicals, and how much are they going to stick to the Republicans this time around? There's ways in which Evangelicals have been burned by Republicans. A lot of them think Republicans have given us a lot of promises, but they haven't really delivered on the issues that we, Evangelicals, as they say, really care about. So I think it matters in the Republican nomination far more than it does in the general election, but we'll have to wait and see.

BURBANK: Well, it'll be really interesting to watch tomorrow night, and hopefully, Mitt Romney will not have such a scratchy mic as JFK did…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: …because it sounds like crap.

Stephen Prothero, head of Religious Studies at Boston University, author of "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn't." Thank you so much.

Prof. PROTHERO: Thanks for having me.

BURBANK: I was joking about JFK, because the recording was very old.

STEWART: Yes.

BURBANK: Actually, a very inspirational speech.

STEWART: You were saying that, actually, before the break - before the show, that that speech was just - stirred something in you, in a good way.

BURBANK: I understand why my mom would speak so fondly of the JFK when you see him on that little YouTube screen.

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