Will Romney speak about his faith during the GOP convention?
In sharp contrast to the 2008 elections, issues of faith and religion have played a minor role during the current campaigns, despite the fact that Romney’s faith, Mormonism, is clouded by ‘misinformation,’ according to a rabbi promoting Jewish-Mormon relations.
During an historic race in which none of the four candidates for president or vice President is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, the question of faith is surprisingly absent from the electoral debate in the U.S.
This week both candidates answered identical questions about faith for Washington National Cathedral’s magazine, "Cathedral Age."
President Barack Obama revealed that his faith has grown since entering the Oval Office, while Governor Romney quoted verses from the book of Matthew.
Though candidates are still following the unwritten rule of finishing every campaign speech with "God bless America,” this is nowhere close to the vitriol spurred during the 2008 elections, which focused on then-candidate Barack Obama's middle name, and his affiliation with Chicago's South Side Trinity United Church and its pastor Jeremiah Wright, whose sermons were accused of sowing division.
According to a new poll entitled "The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism," which spanned 57-countries, America has experienced a sharp drop in the number of individuals that define themselves as religious, down from 73% in 2005 to 60%.
However, the U.S. is still deeply religious country, and the Mormon Church, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which the presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney belongs to, is hardly a mainstream religion.
Nevertheless, it doesn't seem to have any serious impact on the discourse or the future vote, and Romney himself seems determined to navigate the conversation on the subject as if America has already moved past this topic.
Last weekend, Romney and several members of his family, accompanied by the press pool, visited his church in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.
Next week in Tampa, the Republican National Convention will formally announce Mitt Romney as GOP candidate for President, the Mormon Faith will take center stage - a member of the LDS Church will reportedly lead a prayer invocation there.
On the margins of the convention, there will be a panel organized by the American Jewish Committee (bipartisan advocacy organization that will hold events at both parties’ conventions) - for the first time dedicated to the Mormon-Jewish Relations.
"We are having this panel because obviously there is more curiosity about Mormon faith at this point of time because of Governor Romney's candidacy," said Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations.
"There are affinities between the Jewish people and the Mormon people,” Rabbi Marans told Haaretz.
“Both communities are almost identical in size - relative to the American and world population. There are 6 or 7 million Mormons in the U.S., and about 14 million worldwide. Both communities focus on family, education, and integration within American society, while sustaining religious identity as a goal.
There are limits to these similarities, after all, Mormonism is a Christian religion and there are significant theological differences. But sociologically, Mormons and Jews have a great deal in common because of their educational attainment, their economic success, their representation in government that is more influential than there demographic numbers,” said Marans.
Differences are not limited to faith - in terms of political support, about 74% of the Mormons lean towards the Republican party, while 78% of the Jews voted for Obama during the last election. There is also the deeply emotional conflict between the two communities over the posthumous baptism of Holocaust victims.
Rabbi Marans says this issue is largely resolved. "This is an ongoing conversation, and difference of opinion between the Jewish community and the Mormon Church has basically been resolved through negotiation and establishment of very strong guidelines by the Church to prevent posthumous baptism of nearly all Holocaust victims. They continue to believe that Mormons have the right to posthumously baptize victims whom they are related to. If a Mormon has Jewish relatives who perished in the Holocaust - they are allowed to posthumously baptize them.
But that is very very small percentage, and nearly all Holocaust victims are successfully blocked from being baptized in this way. They see it as something they do - but since they believe in the eternity of the soul - this is something that has to be accepted by the party upon whom it is bestowed. And they do not count those who have been posthumously baptized as members of the Mormon Church. They see this as an extension, a gift from their perspective, that only can have validity if it is received. There are standing agreements, but it is not a fool-proof system. And the Jewish community and the Mormon community have a relation that allows us to discuss differences in an open and candid fashion," explained Marans.
The LDS Church leaders are acutely aware of suspicions toward their religious practices, and make an effort to change the image of secrecy. Rabbi Marans recently led an AJC delegation during a visit to the newly built Brigham City Utah Temple. The AJC delegation met with LDS Church leaders, and was one among many such delegations to visit the temple before its dedication.
"There is a lot of misinformation about the Mormon Church," said Marans. "I think they are opening themselves up more in recent years, so they will be better understood,” continued Marans.
The economic recession in the U.S. put some focus on Mormon communities’ infrastructure of self-reliance, with special emphasis on their canneries and warehouses, which distributed food and basic goods to community members in need.
It will be interesting to see whether or not Mitt Romney addresses unique aspects of his faith or his community customs at the upcoming convention, or if he will speak about religion at all.