Mormonism becomes campaign issue in Nevada, Idaho

Boise, USA - Mormonism and politics have merged in two western campaigns this month, providing a glimpse of the renewed scrutiny Mitt Romney could face in a 2012 presidential run.

In the Nevada Senate race, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faced allegations from his Republican opponent's pastor that he is a member of a cult. Reid is a Mormon convert.

In the Idaho governor's race, Republicans accused Mormon Democrat Keith Allred of pandering to The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints to wrest the governor's office from incumbent C.L. "Butch" Otter. About a third of Idaho's population is Mormon, and candidates' success could hinge on how well they court the LDS vote.

Romney, one of the most prominent Mormon politicians, faced skepticism during his 2008 presidential run among voters who questioned if his allegiance would be to the country or to church leaders in Salt Lake City. The focus on his religion was so intense, it became dubbed Romney's "Mormon Moment."

This kind of scrutiny may be the gauntlet Mormons must run on their continuing road to mainstream acceptance, said Richard Bushman, chair of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate College in California. After all, it took until John F. Kennedy's election as president in 1960 before many U.S. voters embraced Roman Catholic candidates.

"Americans like their candidates to be religious, but not too religious," said Bushman, a Utah native and a Mormon. "If you have a demanding religion, one that fills a large part of your life, that makes them uneasy. Mormonism, as everyone knows, is a demanding religion."

Church beliefs such as abstinence from alcohol or its practice of baptism by proxy for people who have died may seem exotic to some. Others associate it with polygamy, even though the church renounced the practice 120 years ago.

Its support of California's same-sex marriage ban has also kept the church in the spotlight.

Romney became entangled in a Mormon dispute in Idaho this month. He has not endorsed the Mormon candidate, backing Otter instead.

The former Massachusetts governor attended an Otter campaign event on Oct. 6, arriving on a private jet owned by Mormon health care products mogul Frank VanderSloot. VanderSloot, from Idaho Falls, preceded Romney on the Boise stage, where he drew on Mormonism as a campaign issue as well as to underscore the animosity Reid faces among Republicans nationwide.

"Keith Allred has been sending eastern Idaho Mormons the message, 'I'm Mormon so vote for me because I'm one of you guys,'" VanderSloot told about 150 Otter supporters. "My answer to that is, well, Harry Reid is a Mormon."

It was Romney's faith that brought him here: Otter, a Catholic who once studied for the priesthood, was banking on Romney's endorsement to boost his credibility with Mormon voters.

"Mitt helps in the LDS community," Otter campaign spokesman Ryan Panitz said. "For better or for worse, that's politics."

Allred, for his part, denied he's made his faith a campaign focus.

While he has campaigned in Idaho's heavily Mormon east and has secured the endorsement of high-profile Idaho Mormons, the 46-year-old said Vandersloot's barbs were the baseless culmination of a "whisper campaign" that's become a shout.

A spokesman in Salt Lake City said the church is politically neutral, referring to its official statement: Its mission is "to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians."

In Nevada, Sharron Angle's former pastor accused Reid of devoting his Democratic political career to advancing the business and religious interests of the church.

"His allegiance is to Salt Lake City," Sonrise Church Pastor John Reed told The Associated Press this month. "It should be to the American people."

Angle, a tea party-backed Republican, quickly distanced herself, saying she'd hadn't attended Reed's church in Reno for six years. As a lifelong Christian, her campaign said, Angle shared similar values with Mormons who make up 7 percent of Nevada's population.

Reid said these were "disturbing and hateful expressions of extreme religious bigotry" and demanded an apology.

Romney has tackled his faith head-on, including in a 2007 speech at Texas A&M University. By telling a national audience "I do not define my candidacy by my religion," he drew comparisons to the 1960 speech where Kennedy promised voters he'd follow his conscience, "without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates."

Even so, the comments by Angle's pastor echoed those that dogged Romney in 2008, when extremists called him part of a Mormon plot to take over the nation. Some Evangelicals feared Romney at the U.S. helm would draw more Mormon converts.

Another 2008 GOP presidential contender, Southern Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee, questioned if Mormons believe Jesus Christ and the devil were brothers.

"Ever since the Evangelicals raised the question of 'Is Mormonism Christian?' and they keep raising it again and again, that can be a way to hit a Mormon candidate below the belt," said Jan Shipps, a professor emeritus of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

Eric Fehrnstrom, spokesman for Romney's Free and Strong America PAC, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.