High-profile week for Mitt, his faith
WASHINGTON - "If you vote for Mitt Romney, you are voting for Satan!"
That's the blunt charge Christian minister Bill Keller offered Friday in an online devotional, in a week that saw Romney's Mormon faith drawn front-and-center in the public's awareness of his presidential bid.
From "60 Minutes" and Time magazine to Keller's online rant and the Rev. Al Sharpton's slam, where "Romney" is mentioned, "Mormon" has been nearby.
"It is an issue he will have to struggle with. It's not going to go away," said Julian Zelizer, a professor at Boston University.
"The two things that Romney essentially has to do is, one, he has to take a strong, Kennedy-like stand, separating himself from the religion as a political figure," Zelizer said. "The second is just saying it all again and again . . . so come primary season everybody's heard it all and it's not that interesting."
Romney's spokesman, Kevin Madden, said an overwhelming majority of people Romney meets "have been welcoming and respectful towards him on the issue of faith."
"There isn't a focus on the denomination or doctrine that distinguishes each American, but instead there is a common interest in talking about strong values and the example Governor Romney sets in how he lives his life," he said.
Last Saturday, Romney delivered a commencement speech at Pat Robertson's Regent University, an outreach to evangelical Christians, where he was warmly welcomed but did not touch on his faith.
As the week continued, Romney's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was pushed into the spotlight.
On Monday, Sharpton delivered what was seen as a slap at Romney when he said during a debate on religion that "those that really believe in God will defeat [Romney] anyway, so don't worry about that, that's a temporary - that's a temporary situation."
Romney responded forcefully, saying, "It shows that bigotry still exists in some corners." But Sharpton said his comment was distorted, likely by the Romney campaign for political gain, and apologized if he offended Mormons.
Time magazine put Romney on its cover and included a story looking at the debate over his religion. And this weekend, CBS' "60 Minutes" will air an interview with Romney in which he acknowledges voters' unease with the church's polygamous history.
"That's part of the history of the church's past that I understand is troubling to people," Romney says. "I have a great-great-grandfather. They were trying to build a generation out there in the desert, and so he took additional wives as he was told to do. And I must admit, I can't imagine anything more awful than polygamy."
In all, six of Romney's forefathers had a total of 41 wives.
The church publicly disavowed the doctrine of polygamy in 1890 and today takes pains to distance itself from sects that continue the practice.
"Of everything with Mormonism, this is the thing that seems to cause the broadest concern," says Zelizer. "That fact that he's saying it now is better than saying it in a few months. . . . [He should] speak about the issue now, so it's not a bombshell later on."
But it was online evangelist Keller, who posts daily devotionals on Liveprayer.com and distributes the messages to 2.4 million e-mail addresses daily, who was by far the most incendiary in his attacks on Romney and Mormonism.
"ROMNEY GETTING ELECTED PRESIDENT WILL ULTIMATELY LEAD MILLIONS OF SOULS TO THE ETERNAL FLAMES OF HELL!!!" Keller wrote.
Don't expect to see that on Romney's campaign bumper stickers anytime soon.
Sarah Gordon, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who has studied Mormon history, says the faith has clearly had its profile elevated, and the criticism Romney has received corresponds with the heightened profile.
"The reaction really is proof that his presence and the presence of the religion itself is important," she said. "You only get this criticism when you matter."