When Iowa’s ultra-conservative, anti-gay Family Leader evangelical group declined to endorse Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at its forum last month, the former Massachusetts governor was quick to turn the non-endorsement into an opportunity to win over LGBT voters in New Hampshire.
“I don’t believe in discriminating in employment or opportunity for gay individuals. So I favor gay rights. I do not favor gay marriage,” he told the editorial board of the Nashua Telegraph in New Hampshire in mid-November.
To buttress his position, Romney signed the National Organization for Marriage’s pledge opposing same-sex marriage, joining candidates Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum.
The pledge affirms a candidate’s promise to “vigorously defend the Defense of Marriage Act” in the courts and to nominate to the Supreme Court and federal district courts judges who “reject the idea our Founding Fathers inserted a right to gay marriage into our Constitution.”
The NOM pledge also holds the candidate to the promise of a presidential commission on “religious liberty” that would investigate harassment or threats against those who have taken positions against same-sex marriage.
Jon Davidson, legal director at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, said in an interview last year that a disturbing strategy has emerged from the marriage equality fight: religious organizations are defending their right to discriminate against LGBT Americans by portraying themselves as victims of religious discrimination.
“There is this kind of messaging going on by conservative churches and organizations that somehow they’re the victims,” Davidson said.
The Republican presidential race is largely unsettled, although recent polls have begun to paint the contest as a two-man race between Romney and Gingrich. Romney’s steady showing over much of this year has also led to questions about the role his Mormon faith would play in a Romney administration.
“I’m old enough to remember the [John F.] Kennedy religious debate, it is never religious persecution to ask a candidate, ‘what are you and your church going to do with my government?” said Ned Flaherty, 58, Marriage Equality USA’s election 2012 project leader. “Some candidate’s churches have no role in their decisions as elected officials, but some candidates’ churches do.
“Kennedy never flew to Vatican City to let the pope tell him what the Catholic Church wanted done via the White House,” said Flaherty. “Yet Romney flies to Salt Lake City to let Mormon officials tell him how to govern. That religion controls the church officials, who tell him how to govern, but he refuses to explain the religion to voters, or to explain his church’s role in everyone else’s government.”
Will Carlson, the former executive director of Equality Utah, told the Bay Area Reporter, “I think Romney’s a lot more active in the church so what he thinks the church leaders want would likely play a greater role in his presidency.”
Carlson explained that presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor who is also Mormon but not active in the church, would likely not be as influenced as would Romney. Huntsman is polling in the low single digits as his campaign has yet to gain traction with GOP primary voters.
When asked about his faith, Romney refers to the “no religious test” clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article VI, paragraph 3), which states that elected officials shall be bound by oath or affirmation (should a person’s faith forbid swearing of an oath), to uphold the Constitution, but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
In a Pew Forum survey conducted last month, results indicate Romney’s faith is a factor within his party’s primaries, but wouldn’t be one in the general election.
Thirty-eight percent of the Republican base self-identify as evangelical Protestants, the largest voting bloc of the party. Of them, 53 percent believe that Mormons are not Christians, and the survey concludes, Republican voters who say Mormonism is not Christianity are far less likely to support Romney for the GOP nomination.
The poll also found that those conservatives who support the Tea Party movement were even less likely to vote for Romney.
In 2008, Romney bowed out of the Republican presidential race after a poor showing in the first three primaries. Many Mormons, whose church is expanding worldwide, were surprised that their faith was a major stumbling block for Romney among evangelical Christians. Of the GOP in Iowa, 40 percent of voters in the Republican primary were evangelical Christians.
Besides questions about his religion, Romney has faced increasing scrutiny over changing his positions on various issues. Last week, Democratic National Committee Chair Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz stated that Romney “has no moral core.” Her comment was in response to Romney’s perceived flip-flopping on several issues.
Despite Romney’s statement last week that he supports some gay rights, the candidate remains opposed to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and to equal benefits for the families of gay and lesbian service members and veterans.
Romney now says he supports non-discrimination for gays and lesbians in housing and employment.
At the Marriage Equality USA website, Flaherty maintains a list of the presidential candidates’ positions on LGBT rights, as submitted by the candidates.
Flaherty recently changed Romney’s status to reflect his comments to the New Hampshire newspaper.
“At MEUSA we educate the public about where candidates stand regarding marriage equality, but the issue is civil equality,” Flaherty said.
Most LGBT equality activists aren’t buying Romney’s newfound support for non-discrimination in housing and employment as a sign the candidate is sympathetic to their cause. Carlson pointed out that the Mormon Church has finally taken that same position in Utah, after negative publicity nationwide over the arrest of a gay couple by church security for a kiss on Salt Lake City’s Temple Square.
In Romney’s case, adherence to his faith has never been in doubt.
Mormon blogger Greg Prince suggests it is an individual Mormon’s adherence to his or her church, not the candidate’s faith, that needs to be considered.
“Know who your enemies are when it comes to your civil rights,” Prince said, when asked if Romney was a friend or foe of the LGBT community. “The only core belief Mitt Romney has is that Mitt Romney should be president. Remember how Romney attacked [then-Senator Edward] Kennedy from the left on gay rights in the mid-1990s Senate race?”
Author Ron Scott, whose biography, Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics, was just released, told theB.A.R. that Romney was born immersed in a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints political dynasty. His father, who was governor of Michigan, was also known to change positions on political issues. Scott, a reporter, is Mormon and also a distant cousin of Romney’s.
“The church wouldn’t seek to ask him to vote a certain way, not in an office that high,” Scott said in an interview. In fact, Scott said Romney has “actually had a history of doing it the other way around,” flying to Salt Lake City to discuss his position on abortion, for example.
“As a regular member of the church, you’re not obligated” to discuss personal decisions, said Scott. “On the same hand, if you’re an officer of the church you’re in a little bit of a situation.” Scott explained that Romney was president of the Mormon Church in Massachusetts, the equivalent of being a bishop or an archbishop in the Catholic Church.
“Can a Mormon say ‘I’m personally in favor of gay rights?’ The answer is yes. Mormons are taught to believe in the ability of free agency,” said Scott. “That we were put on this earth to make decisions for ourselves. It’s called the plan of free agency.
“I would think he probably is praying between now and next November the Supreme Court rules on the issue of same-sex marriage. If the Supreme Court upheld it, would he work for its repeal? I doubt it. He did not support Proposition 8 financially,” Scott said, referring to California’s same-sex marriage ban that voters passed in 2008.
“I think that he’s been out in the world he knows how the world functions. I don’t think, in my gut, his beliefs have changed that much 15 years,” said Scott of Romney. “I think maybe on the surface he’s had to be more strident on the marriage issue, but I think that his position on equal rights has been consistent.”
At one point Romney supported civil unions.
“From 1994 to 2003 or 2004, he [Romney] was in favor of civil unions, in fact, he was a leader in that,” said Scott. “It was after 2004 that he began to hedge his bets. When he appeared on the dais with the Wirthlins [who sued the Estabrook School District over its anti-bias curriculum that expressed acceptance for same-sex marriage] he first said he supported civil unions ‘as a last resort.'”
“That’s the first time he used that term with civil unions,” said Scott, who believes the event marked Romney’s move to the right on the issue of marriage equality.
(This article by Dan Aiello first appeared in the Bay Area Reporter)