The one word none of the main speakers has dared utter at the Republican convention is Mormon. A telling omission as Mitt Romney is crowned the faith’s first ever presidential nominee.
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.
Americans have listened to prime-time televised speeches recounting his courtship and marriage to his wife Ann, and learned that he relishes his role as a doting father and grandfather.
The campaign has gone to great lengths to impress voters with his accomplishments as a skilled business manager, a transformational Massachusetts governor, and the bold savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
A hush continues, however, 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. Some view it as a cult, even a heresy.
“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.”
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.
There are six million Mormons in the United States, and three out of four describe themselves as conservative.
Romney has spoken little about his religion, other than portraying himself as a man of faith with beliefs similar to those of other Christians.
In 2007, during his first presidential run, Romney gave an address about the role of faith in America, but he mentioned Mormonism just once.
When the New York Times and the Washington Post recently published stories on Romney’s long-standing involvement as a lay church leader and his commitment to Mormon teachings, his campaign declined to comment.
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 humanize 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 center.”
A sign that Romney might opt to steer clear of all but the most oblique mention of Mormonism came Wednesday when running mate Paul Ryan alluded to the faith only in the most generic way.
“The man who will accept your nomination tomorrow is prayerful and faithful and honorable,” Ryan said.
Romney is not the first Mormon to seek the White House. The faith’s founder Joseph Smith ran in 1844, in part to press for greater civil liberties for members of his nascent church.
And Romney’s father George waged an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 1968.
Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor, was another Mormon candidate this year, but his campaign failed to gain traction and he dropped out in January.
But despite persistent skepticism about the faith — a Bloomberg News poll from March shows more than one in three Americans hold an unfavorable view of the Mormon church.