South Carolina Mormons welcome GOP spotlight on their faith

As in 2008, the S.C. Republican Presidential Primary offers the political spectacle of Mitt Romney's Mormon beliefs running head on into a Bible Belt electorate.

Bill Fox of Tega Cay, Brian Sims of Fort Mill and Karl Jensen of Rock Hill say they welcome the collision.

Like Romney, all three are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and all plan to take part Saturday in their state's pivotal presidential decision.

The York County residents also believe the ongoing national and statewide scrutiny that the Romney campaign has brought to their church may help clear up longstanding misrepresentations of Mormons as cultists and polygamists - claims that some local Mormons say they've faced most of their lives.

"We believe we have something that's true and in place that make people happy," says Sims, a Charlotte native, who remembers as a boy being asked by friends if he had horns and a tail. "Any way we can share that with more people is a good thing. It's a great thing."

Romney, the GOP front-runner, can all but sew up his party's nomination with a win Saturday. He has already captured Iowa and New Hampshire.

But South Carolina is his first Southern test, and with it again comes questions of how his religious beliefs jibe with the state's Christian conservatives. Mormons strongly consider themselves Christians. Many denominations, just as strongly, do not.

In 2008, Romney ran fourth in the state. And while some observers believe his first campaign took the edge off South Carolinians' fears about his faith, evangelist Franklin Graham says the issue remains a sticking point.

"There is a lot of concern among some Christians about Mormons," he says. "It is not an issue with me. ... We are not voting on the pastor-in-chief."

S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley sounds a similar note.

"This is a state that elected a 38-year-old Indian female," she recently said.

Four years ago, 60 percent of GOP primary voters identified themselves as born-again Christians.

This time around, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been telling South Carolina audiences how he accepted Jesus Christ at 14. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum has asked voters for their prayers.

Romney speaks more about "values" than his faith, apparently wary of setting off alarm bells with evangelicals. A Mormon spokesman in Salt Lake City cited similar concerns, along with the church's traditional political neutrality, when he told the Observer neither the church nor its Charlotte-area leaders would comment until after Saturday's vote.

Sims, 42, a registered Republican who works for Bank of America, says he believes Romney's business savvy, and not his religion, should take precedence.

"I'm hoping (religion) will play less a role than we feared given that the economy is in so much trouble, and Romney's the best person in place to do something about it," he says.

But he adds: "There are some very old-school evangelicals in South Carolina, and they are working very hard for (former House Speaker Newt) Gingrich and Santorum."

Small presence in Carolinas

Church writings say South Carolina's first Mormon, Emmanual Masters Murphy, already was converting neighbors when church missionaries arrived in the state in 1839.

Nationally, Mormons make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population. The Carolinas are home to about 115,000 church members, with some 40,000 in South Carolina (the state has about 20 times more Baptists).

Mormons say their faith tracks the teachings of Jesus. But they follow the Book of Mormon as well as the Bible. And several of their beliefs - including that God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are separate deities and not part of the divine Trinity - further separate them from mainstream Christian teachings.

In Easley, S.C., in the conservative Upstate, the Rev. Brad Atkins, president of the S.C. General Baptist Convention has posted an email exchange on his church website with his objections to the LDS church.

"Romney's Mormonism will be more a cause of concern than Gingrich's infidelity," Atkins wrote. Christians can forgive sin "but will struggle to understand how anyone could be a Mormon and call themselves a Christian."

Franklin Graham, on the other hand, told the Observer the key question facing voters in South Carolina and across the country is, "Who is the best person to lead this nation through a turbulent world?

"We need someone who can turn this economy around. It's going in the wrong direction now."

Graham speaks favorably of most of the candidates in the S.C. field, including Gingrich, Santorum and Jon Huntsman, another Mormon.

"I have met Gov. Romney, too. I like him. I have spent time in his home. ... Any of these candidates could help takes this country forward."

'Not as big a deal' this time

Karl Jensen moved his family to Rock Hill 10 years ago and has always felt welcomed, though he does remember teachers at his kids' schools once linking Mormons with polygamy, which the church banned in 1890.

Jensen, 52, and the father of four, says he is a registered independent and hasn't yet decided between Romney and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul.

He supported Romney four years ago. But, in a jab at Perry and Santorum, he says he doesn't believe religion "should be your only calling card for the presidency."

As for Romney's chances Saturday, Jensen believes the candidate's 2008 S.C. campaign and his work since to build more alliances should pay dividends.

"I don't think his religion is going to be as big a deal as it was four years ago," he says. "...I still think it will cost him a few votes. But I don't think it will cost him an election."

Fox, too, says he is torn between Paul and Romney, but Romney is the name on the bumper of his car.

He believes his fellow Mormon, like President Barack Obama, can squash stereotypes.

"Religion is not a reason to judge a man for his qualifications for office," Fox says. "But the values and beliefs from our faith can make (Romney) a better man, a better husband, a better father. "It will also make him a better president."

The Associated Press contributed.

To read more, visit www.charlotteobserver.com.

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