Live

Watch CBSN Live

Will anyone say "Mormon" at the Republican convention?

Is America ready for a Mormon president?
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to reporters after he campaigned at Cherokee Trike and More in Greer, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

(CBS News) Mitt Romney and his supporters have rarely mentioned Romney's Mormon faith on the campaign trail, despite the central role it has played in the candidate's life. That's not likely to change when Romney delivers his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on August 30.

"I don't expect to hear the word Mormon," said Max Perry Mueller, associate editor of Religion & Politics and a PhD candidate in Religion at Harvard University who specializes in Mormonism.  

Romney, who was at one time the top Mormon authority in the Boston area, said in a 2007 speech that his church will not dictate his decisions if he is elected president. But he added that "I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it." 

In his 2012 presidential run, by contrast, Romney has played down the specifics of his beliefs. Speaking at evangelical Liberty University in May, Romney did not utter the word Mormon. The closest he came was a comment that people of different faiths "can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview."

Romney's decision to rarely discuss his faith is grounded partly in his campaign strategy to focus his rhetoric largely on the economy, which polls show is the top issue for voters. But it is also tied to the perception that many Americans, particularly the evangelicals who make up an important part of the GOP base, view Mormonism skeptically. A June Gallup survey found that 18 percent of Americans would not vote for a well-qualified Mormon presidential candidate. It also found that four in 10 do not know Romney is Mormon.

The Republican convention in Tampa is a chance for Romney, who polls suggest has struggled to connect with voters, to tell his life story. His faith is a big part of that story: Romney has served as a church pastor, spent two years as a Mormon missionary, and comes from a family whose history is tied to persecution over its religious beliefs.

"His faith is a central part of his life, and has been for his entire life," says Mark DeMoss, an adviser to the Romney campaign who has worked to convince evangelicals to embrace Romney. "It's not a newly-found faith or an adult faith. It's his lifetime faith. And I think it's just a vital part of his life."

Romney has somewhat opened the door to a focus on his faith in recent days: His campaign allowed reporters to witness his attendance at Mormon services last Sunday, and the candidate discussed his beliefs with the magazine of Washington's National Cathedral. But while there has been speculation that Romney will "embrace" his faith at the convention, a Republican familiar with convention plans says that the focus will be on Romney's success as a businessman and how it qualifies him to run the economy.

Mormonism won't be completely absent: There are plans for a Mormon to deliver an invocation or benediction on at least one night of the convention, a different source tells CBS News. But it is almost certain that this figure will not be a prominent official with the Church - which is officially remaining neutral in the presidential race - but rather a Mormon politician like Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz. Mormons have participated in Republican conventions in the past, including in 2004 when Mormon author Sherri Dew delivered an invocation.

John Stemberger, the evangelical president of the Florida Family Policy Council, said he would be concerned if Mormonism was "the only expression of faith" at the convention. He noted, however, that there will be a variety of faith leaders present, including the president of the California-based National Hispanic Christian Leadership, Sammy Rodriguez.

"Our primary issue is we're electing a president, not necessarily a theologian," said Stemberger, whose group is holding a prayer rally in conjunction with the convention featuring Rep. Michele Bachmann and others.

Stemberger describes Mormonism as "Christian in the largest sense," but adds that "it's certainly not orthodox Christian faith in terms of its doctrine." He adds approvingly that he has seen no evidence that Romney has acted "to bring Mormon stakeholders to the forefront of his campaign."

At the 2008 Republican convention, nominee John McCain, who had a famously contentious relationship with the religious right, largely avoided discussion of religion. The biographical video shown at the convention to fire up the crowd centered on McCain's military heroism, not his religious beliefs.

But religion has loomed large at previous Republican presidential conventions. In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush peppered his acceptance speeches with religious references, including his 2004 claim that freedom is "the almighty God's gift to every man and woman in this world." Republicans played down religion in 1996 in the wake of an intra-party battle over abortion, but nominee Bob Dole still managed seven mentions of God in his acceptance speech, including the statement that he is "just a man, at the mercy of God." The 1992 Republican convention was a triumph for the religious right, opening with a Pat Buchanan speech attacking "radical feminism" and gay rights as "not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God's country." 

The focus in these speeches was broadly on shared Christian beliefs, not the potentially-alienating details of a specific faith. Romney seems to have little incentive to deviate from that script. DeMoss, the evangelical Romney adviser, said that with some evangelicals "not entirely comfortable" with Mormonism, he has stressed common values in making the case for the candidate.

"As an evangelical and a conservative I have more in common with most Mormons than I do with a liberal southern Baptist, for example," DeMoss said, pointing to Democrats Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and Bill Clinton. "I think when we frame it in those terms, people are more understanding and accepting."

Mueller said that while he does not expect to hear the word Mormon, he does expect there will be some focus on faith. It just won't be the faith to which Romney belongs.

"I do think we'll hear about Paul Ryan's Catholicism -- you'll hear the word Catholic much more than you hear references to Mormonism," he said. Ryan's religion is seen as a potential boost for the Romney-Ryan ticket in Ohio and Pennsylvania. (Notably, John F. Kennedy, a Catholic Democrat, faced some of the same concerns about his faith that Romney does today. The whispers were significant enough that Kennedy gave a speech in 1960 stressing that, as president, he would not take orders from the Pope.)

Mueller predicted that Romney's convention speech will include general references to faith, not details of his life in the Mormon church.

"When Romney talks about it, he'll just say 'my faith,'" he said. "And then refer to how it informs his views on traditional marriage and on contraception and abortion."

View CBS News In