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Romney's challenge: What Bexar County's primaries could tell America about the anti-Mormon vote

Photo: Photo illustration by Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Photo illustration by Chuck Kerr

Photo: Steven Gilmore, License: N/A

Steven Gilmore

A new Mormon temple being constructed on Talley Road.

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Romney rebuked the Perry campaign for Jeffress' attack, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints just turned the other cheek. Or, more accurately, turned its back. The LDS gerontocracy, uncannily esoteric, shrinks from the public eye. Rather than relish the publicity storm from Romney's run, the church hierarchy is currently deeply uneasy. "Quite frankly, with all of the issues in the air politically, we are really trying to step back and let the political thing run its own course and to try to keep the church out of the limelight," local LDS PR representative Doug Clark said.

Perry, who regularly attends an evangelical megachurch outside of Austin, publicly disavowed Jeffress' comments with a wink to his Protestant supporters. But after he piloted his candidacy straight into a sheer cliff of incompetence, 150 panicked national Christian conservative groups convened an emergency huddle at a Texas ranch and voted to endorse Santorum, a devout Catholic, as the social conservative aligned most closely with the values vote. Thus anointed, Santorum quickly emerged as Romney's most dangerous opponent. The tub-thumping former Pennsylvania senator regular thunders against what he calls President Barack Obama's "war on religion," and claimed he "almost threw up" when he read that Kennedy had said, during his famous 1960 speech on his Catholicism, that he believed in "an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

Romney, however, struggling with the stigma of his religion, has embraced Kennedy's secular stance. In 2007, during his previous campaign run, he delivered his own widely anticipated faith speech during which he declared, "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin."

He's walking the high-wire between a broader public distrustful of Mormonism and the LDS church itself. Any proposition that authorities of Romney's church would seek to exert influence over the White House were he to become president is far-fetched, but the comparison to Kennedy's relationship to the Vatican is not strictly analogous.

In the Mormon faith, church authority stands absolute and unassailable. LDS adherents are bound to obey the Salt Lake City-based president — a figure corresponding to the Pope in terms of hierarchy but believed by Saints to literally be a living prophet. Disobedience to the Prophet could be punished by excommunication, with all the unpleasant of eternal damnation that implies.

Public criticism of the church violates an "endowment promise" that also incurs excommunication, one of the few pathways to Mormon hell, which may be why Romney seems to squirm when asked to comment on LDS controversies, such as the exclusion up until 1978 of blacks from participating in either the priesthood or in the main temple ceremonies. More than a simple reluctance to comment on his personal faith, the candidate is precluded by oath from publicly questioning the LDS brass or its worldview.

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