Mormons take centre stage

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iol pic wld mormon mitt romney REUTERS Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney points to the crowd after his speech during the final session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

Tampa, Florida -

For most of the Republican convention, the one word none of the main speakers had dared utter was, Mormon.

That changed in dramatic fashion on Thursday, when a series of speakers from presidential nominee Romney's Mormon faith took the stage to help put a human face of a religion many Americans know little about, or even distrust.

As Romney was crowned the faith's first ever presidential nominee, character testimonials were the order of the day.

A still-grieving couple - members of Romney's church - described his caring compassion and many acts of kindness toward their teenaged son who was dying of cancer, including helping him write up a will.

“Mitt brought joy to a young boy who hadn't experienced any for too long. He also gave the rest of us a welcome release,” said the couple, Ted and Pat Oparowski, as they recounted a heart-rending tale of parental loss.

Romney spent nearly 14 years as a lay Mormon pastor around Boston, and the act of compassion, those in his church attested, was typical of the selfless service he showed.

The invocation at the beginning of the evening was given by Ken Hutchins, who like Romney was also a Mormon leader in Massachusetts, among other remarks of praise and admiration by supporters from Romney's church.

The Republican National Convention - a three-day fete giving voters a chance to size up the candidate who might be their next president - has focused largely on boosting Romney's image and showing his more human side.

The campaign has gone to great lengths to impress voters with his accomplishments as a father and grandfather, skilled business manager, a transformational Massachusetts governor, and the bold saviour of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Until Thursday night however, a near-hush reigned around one of the guiding forces of his life: the practice of his religion with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as Mormonism is formally known.

There is a good reason for this. Many Americans, especially Christian evangelicals who are a key part of the Republican voter base, are deeply suspicious of the religion. A Bloomberg News poll from March found that more than one in three Americans hold an unfavourable view of the Mormon church.

“There's the obvious risk of many Christian conservatives within his party who have deep doubts about Mormonism,” said expert Charles Franklin. “That's the fundamental tactical or strategic reason not to make a big deal out of it.”

Ann Romney made only a passing reference to her Mormon church in her speech to the convention.

And in excerpts of his nomination acceptance speech released late Thursday, Romney only alluded to his faith, without calling out the religion by name.

“Like a lot of families in a new place with no family, we found kinship with a wide circle of friends through our church,” he says.

“When we were new to the community it was welcoming and as the years went by, it was a joy to help others who had just moved to town or just joined our church.”

There are six million Mormons in the United States, and three out of four describe themselves as conservative.

Named after the Book of Mormon dictated by founder Joseph Smith in the 1820s in western New York state, the faith is known for its missionaries, its original practice of polygamy and strict rules against alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.

In 2007, during his first presidential run, he gave an address about the role of faith in America, but he mentioned Mormonism just once.

But earlier this month, the candidate suddenly opened up to the media, inviting journalists to accompany him to church services.

According to reports, Romney advisers believed it was time for him to embrace his religious background, calculating that his charitable giving and active church role might help improve public impressions about Mormonism.

Franklin said the campaign's attempts to humanise Romney would benefit from an embrace of his faith, a major part of who he is, but he didn't expect the candidate to press this in his crucial convention speech.

“It's hard to believe you can go this long without making that part of your story,” the University of Wisconsin-Madison politics professor and co-founder of Pollster.com told AFP.

“But given how little it has been discussed by the campaign, not just this year but four years ago as well, I'd be a little surprised to see it introduced front and centre.” - Sapa-AFP


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