“Mormon Issue” Keeps Romney out of Weekend GOP Debate, Highlights Religious Right Schism

The next Republican presidential debate – the Thanksgiving Family Forum – is tomorrow in the crucial early caucus state of Iowa. The elephant in the room will be the elephant not in the room – frontrunner Mitt Romney who is avoiding the event, presumably to prevent the “Mormon issue” from heating up again.

The Thanksgiving Family Forum is being sponsored by three right-wing organizations: Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink, the National Organization for Marriage, and the Family Leader, an Iowa-based Christian conservative organization. On the face of it, Romney fits in rather well with this crowd. He has called homosexuality “perverse” and “reprehensible” and has signed on to NOM’s pledge against equal rights for committed gay and lesbian couples. So far so good for Mitt, but there’s a theological snag.
 
Many Religious Right activists and organizers care first and foremost about supporting a “real” Christian. However, according to a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, “nearly half (49 percent) of white evangelical Protestant voters do not believe that the Mormon faith is a Christian religion.”
 
Romney desperately wants to avoid a repeat of the Values Voters Summit, where high profile Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress introduced Rick Perry and then claimed that Romney is not a "true, born again follower of Christ." The attack captured national headlines and greatly hindered Romney’s efforts to woo the Religious Right.
 
After Romney bowed out of tomorrow’s debate, which will feature all the other top GOP candidates, Family Leader founder Bob Vander Plaats went on Fox News to denounce the decision:  “Mitt Romney has dissed this base in Iowa and this diss will not stay in Iowa[.]This might prove that he is not smart enough to be president.” Earlier Vander Plaats said that “should Romney decide to show up, there is no doubt that the hidden question on Mitt Romney has been his Mormon faith.”
 
Despite Romney’s deeply  conservative social views, the “Mormon issue” will continue to haunt him, and no amount of pandering can overcome what appears to be a deep-seated theological objection. Look no further than Religious Right radio giant Focus on the Family.
 
Focus’ CitizenLink made headlines in late 2008 when it pulled an interview with Glenn Beck over his Mormon faith, as the Deseret News reported:
 
James Dobson's Focus on the Family ministry has pulled from its CitizenLink Web site an article about talk show host Glenn Beck's book "The Christmas Sweater" after some complained that Beck's LDS faith is a "cult" and "false religion" and shouldn't be promoted by a Christian ministry.
 
The controversy reportedly began when the group Underground Apologetics issued a press release on Christian Newswire attacking the Mormon faith:
 
While Glenn's social views are compatible with many Christian views, his beliefs in Mormonism are not. Clearly, Mormonism is a cult. The CitizenLink story does not mention Beck's Mormon faith, however, the story makes it look as if Beck is a Christian who believes in the essential doctrines of the faith.
 
Shortly after, Focus on the Family caved:
 
We do recognize the deep theological difference between evangelical theology and Mormon theology, and it would have been prudent for us at least to have pointed out these differences. Because of the confusion, we have removed the interview from CitizenLink.
 
Earlier in 2008, Tom Minnery – CitizenLink’s executive director and an organizer of tomorrow’s debate – was quoted in Time saying that “Mitt Romney has acknowledged that Mormonism is not a Christian faith.” However, he acknowledged that “on the social issues we are so similar.”
 
Minnery appeared somewhat conciliatory on Wednesday, saying that “There is room for people who do not hold an orthodox Christianity, we prize Thomas Jefferson, but I don’t think anybody would say he was an orthodox Christian in his beliefs.” However, that begs the question of whether the Religious Right views Romney as a non-orthodox Christian or a non-Christian. Minnery himself seemed to answer that question four years ago.
 
As for Romney, he will continue to tout his social conservative credentials while doing his best to keep his religious views out of the limelight.