After keeping his religious beliefs mostly private, Mitt Romney highlighted his dedication to his faith in his own remarks and through the heartfelt testimony of friends Thursday night as he became the first Mormon nominee for president on a major party ticket.
The comments were a turning point for the former Massachusetts governor, who has wrestled with how much to discuss being a Mormon, a faith that faced prejudice from its earliest days and remains little known to most Americans.
In his acceptance speech on the final day of the Republican National Convention, Romney recalled growing up as one of the few Mormons in his community, and of finding support from church friends when he and his wife, Ann, first moved to Massachusetts. Instead of his usual broad reference to faith and God, Romney referred to Mormonism by name.
“We were Mormons and growing up in Michigan; that might have seemed unusual or out of place but I really don’t remember it that way,” Romney said. “My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to.”
Still, the most memorable insights came from others. Fellow Mormons Ted and Pat Oparowski recalled how Romney helped their dying son write his will. And Pam Finlayson, who belonged to Romney’s congregation, remembered him stroking the back of her prematurely born daughter during a hospital visit and bringing over Thanksgiving dinner.
“When I see Mitt Romney, I know him to be a loving father, a man of faith and a caring and compassionate friend,” Finlayson said from the podium in Tampa, Fla.
Romney is from one of the most prominent families in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His father was governor of Michigan and a successful executive in the auto industry.
Starting in the 1980s, he served as an LDS bishop in the Boston suburb of Belmont, a job akin to the pastor of a congregation. He then became stake president, the top Mormon authority in his region, which meant he presided over several congregations in a district similar to a diocese. He counseled Latter-day Saints on their most personal concerns, regarding marriage, parenting, finances and faith. He worked with immigrant converts from Haiti, Cambodia and other countries.
“We had remarkably vibrant and diverse congregants from all walks of life and many who were new to America,” Romney said. “We prayed together, our kids played together and we always stood ready to help each other out in different ways.”
Grant Bennett, an assistant to Romney at the Belmont congregation, told delegates Thursday that Romney had “a listening ear and a helping hand.” He said Romney devoted as many as 20 hours a week to the position at his own expense. Bennett used the full name of the church in his remarks, the only speaker to do so.
Other convention speakers had already laid a foundation for this new openness. Vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, a Roman Catholic, said in his speech a night earlier that “our different faiths come together in the same moral creed.”
Republican evangelicals have been playing down conflict with Latter-day Saints. Most prominently, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told delegates Wednesday night, said, “I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church, than I do about where he takes this country.”
Huckabee, a Southern Baptist pastor before he entered politics, had publicly questioned Mormon beliefs when he was competing against Romney in the 2008 presidential primary. Most Christians don’t consider Latter-day Saints part of traditional Christianity, although Mormons do.
A Gallup poll in June found that voter bias against Mormons has barely budged for decades. In the survey, 18 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who happens to be a Mormon, compared to 17 percent who said so in 1967, when Romney’s father George had been seeking the Republican nomination.
However, the campaign clearly felt more confident discussing the LDS Church since Romney clinched the nomination.
Polls indicate that Republican voters are willing to set aside their concerns about the LDS church to oust President Barack Obama. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of people who know that Romney is Mormon are comfortable with his religion or don’t consider it a concern. In the days leading up to the convention, Romney told interviewers he prays daily and discussed the doubts he experienced about his religion when he, like most young Mormon men, fulfilled his church duty to serve as a missionary. Romney served in overwhelmingly Catholic France during the 1960s, and faced hostility as an American and a Mormon.
“I don’t think underlying attitudes have changed,” said John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute for Applied Politics. “I don’t think evangelicals are any less skeptical about Mormons, but an election is a choice and Republicans have something to work with here because of the unpopularity of Obama among this group of evangelicals.”