Candidate’s faith should be of little consequence to voters

There he is in his letterman jacket, a student body vice president. There he is with the varsity basketball team wearing jersey No. 12.

There he is in his senior picture, a nice face in my 1972 yearbook from Spokane’s Joel E. Ferris High School.

This summer I expect to attend my 40th high school reunion. If political winds keep blowing in the direction they have been, that reunion may be a bit more exciting than usual.

That fellow in my high school yearbook is Rick Romney.

His uncle was George Romney. The three-term Michigan governor, who died in 1995, ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968. He was also in President Richard Nixon’s first-term cabinet as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

That connection made our classmate ever-so-slightly famous at school. Rick Romney’s last name, anyway, was in the news. Back then we had no idea that one of our school’s top basketball players had a cousin, Willard Mitt Romney, who would also run for the White House.

The last time I saw Rick Romney was 2007. At a 35-year high school reunion in downtown Spokane, no one dwelled on politics. Our onetime classmate talked briefly about cousin Mitt, who by that summer had launched his 2008 GOP presidential nomination bid.

Instead of any chatter about the race, I remember Rick Romney, who lives in the San Diego area, proudly sharing a picture of his wife, children and grandchildren.

There is a point to all this, beyond the fact that someone I went to high school with is related to today’s front-runner for the GOP nomination. Mitt Romney recently scored victories in Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

I’ve been thinking about Rick Romney when I hear about Mitt Romney’s faith being raised as an election issue. I doubt we have heard the last of it. Our former classmate, like his famous cousin, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Growing up in Eastern Washington, there was nothing unusual about meeting members of the Mormon Church. My father and sister went to the University of Idaho, and my brother lives in Boise. In parts of Idaho, with its proximity to Salt Lake City where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has its headquarters, you’re as likely as not to meet a person who is Mormon.

We who live in the West are simply more apt to be Mormon, or to be neighbors of people who are, than people in many parts of the country.

I often hear talking heads on cable TV say that Mormonism may have a particularly negative effect on Mitt Romney’s campaign in South Carolina, which holds its primary Jan. 21. That, pundits say, is because of South Carolina’s many voters who are evangelical Christians.

Last fall, according to The New York Times, a Baptist pastor who was backing the presidential candidacy of Texas Gov. Rick Perry told a gathering that Mormonism is “a cult” and that “Mitt Romney is not a Christian.”

Here, as quoted in The New York Times, was Mitt Romney’s response: “I just don’t believe that that kind of divisiveness based on religion has a place in this country.”

Please, before we hear another word, can we all agree on that?

I’m old enough to remember when the issue of John F. Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism stirred fears during the 1960 presidential race. It wasn’t so long ago that some journalists questioned Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s fitness to serve as vice president because of religious restrictions related to Orthodox Judaism. Lieberman, Democrat Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 presidential race, was the first Jewish candidate on a major political party ticket.

What a Mormon believes is not what I believe. What I believe may not be what you believe. The practices and tenets of any religion aren’t followed by people not of that faith, and may seem foreign or inexplicable.

In a survey of 1,019 adult Mormons questioned in October and November by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion &Public Life, 6 in 10 said they believe Americans know little or nothing about their faith. Yet 56 percent of those surveyed said they believe Americans are ready to elect a Mormon president.

What matters to me is how a candidate will govern. Do I agree with his or her policies and positions?

Our history is steeped in struggles of people who fled religious persecution. I don’t want anyone’s religion ruling this country. I do respect everyone’s choice to adhere — or not — to a religious tradition.

And Rick Romney: If you’re not stumping for your cousin this summer, come back to Spokane to see your classmates.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,

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