Mormon candidates would test Bible Belt voters' political faith - East Valley Tribune: Politics

Mormon candidates would test Bible Belt voters' political faith

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Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 9:05 am

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Under the conventional wisdom about Southern Baptists -- a group that has in the past condemned Mormonism as a cult and its followers as non-Christian -- devout Baptist Rex Rish should quickly dismiss the idea of voting for a Mormon for president.

Except that he doesn't.

"If they can fix this country, I'd vote for someone with purple polka dots," says Rish, after a recent Sunday service at the historic First Baptist Church here.

Since their founding in 1830, Latter-day Saints have faced critics who say the religion doesn't fit within the Christian fold. And nowhere in the United States is that concern as palpable as deep in the Bible Belt of the South, where Baptist and Protestant faiths are woven into the community fabric.

As Mormons Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. consider GOP presidential bids, they face questions of whether their faith might pose a hurdle in this part of the country.

The South Carolina primary is not just another hurdle for party hopefuls. The winner of its Republican presidential primary has gone on to win the GOP nomination in every election since 1980. Its place as one of the first four contests in the nation and the first in the South -- no date has yet been set -- helps secure its importance in the process.

The good news for the two LDS hopefuls is that residents say their attitudes are shifting, slowly, in the political arena.

Rish, for one, acknowledges he doesn't believe members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are "doctrinally correct." But he says his decision in supporting candidates is more about what they stand for than what church they pray in.

"I'd like a candidate to be a mirror image of me, but that's not going to happen," he says. "So the best I can do is vote for the one that will run the country the best."

If perceptions have changed toward Mormons, the explanation may lie partly in the Salt Lake City-based church's expansion.

In 1980, the church counted 11,881 members in South Carolina. In the 1990s, there were 23,000. Now, the church says, there are 36,947 members.

That still makes Mormons a tiny minority in a state of more than 4.5 million. Some 45 percent of South Carolinians align themselves with an evangelical Protestant tradition, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The Rev. Wendell Estep, revered pastor of the First Baptist Church here, says he believes Mormonism is a cult. He also says President John F. Kennedy's ability to overcome concerns about his Catholic faith in 1960 was a turning point in how people view religion and elected office.

"Of course, South Carolinians will be interested in a person's relationship to God," Estep says during a recent visit to his office. "I think that's a part of our heritage. They're also going to be interested in the economy, interested in jobs, they're going to be interested in the Constitution, interested in those basic issues."

The Mormons' ranks are thin in South Carolina's political world. In the 170-member state legislature, only Rep. Alan Clemmons, a real estate attorney in Myrtle Beach, is a Mormon.

A fourth-generation Mormon, Clemmons says when he first ran for office in 2000 he heard rumblings of an anti-Mormon campaign against him -- over-the-back-fence whisperings about his faith.

He lost that race for a state Senate seat against an entrenched Democrat, but two years later won a seat in the state House, where he remains.

"South Carolina has been described as the buckle of the Bible Belt, and I'm proud to be part of the Bible Belt mentality," Clemmons says.

Signs are cropping up that diverse candidates are more welcome.

Last year, the state voted in Republican Gov. Nikki Haley. The first-generation American was raised in the Sikh faith by her parents, who immigrated from India. She married a Methodist six years ago and now considers herself a Christian.

The state also elected its first black Republican to Congress, Tim Scott, last November.

During Romney's 2010 bid, anti-Mormon literature occasionally reached voters' mailboxes and inboxes. One card, purporting to come from the Boston LDS Temple, quoted the late LDS Apostle Orson Pratt about plural marriage.

Richard Land, president of the 16.3 million-member Southern Baptist convention's ethics and moral arm, says Baptists consider Mormonism "another religion. It's not Christianity."

Land noted that if two candidates were equal in all other things but one was a Mormon and one an evangelical Protestant, Baptists would go for the evangelical.

But if a Mormon aligns more with their values, he or she could find support, Land said.

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