HOWARD, WI -- Mitt Romney bristled at a question Monday about his Mormon faith as it relates to an issue of race before returning to the issue of his beliefs.
Romney engaged in two separate exchanges at a town hall event here -- one tense, the other empathetic -- that shed light on arguably one of the most poorly understood elements of the former Massachusetts governor's personal biography.
The first exchange occurred when Bret Hatch, a 28-year-old supporter of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, haltingly attempted to quote a passage from Mormon scripture which dealt with race, before being prodded by Romney to ask an actual question.
“I’m sorry, we’re just not going to have a discussion about religion in my view, but if you have a question, I’ll be happy to answer your question,” Romney said.
"I guess my question is -- do you believe it’s a sin for a white man to marry and procreate with a black?" Hatch asked.
"No. Next question," Romney responded tersely, turning his back to Hatch and looking for another raised hand.
Romney is a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormon or LDS church. His family is steeped in the history of the LDS church, and Romney has long been involved in church affairs, including serving as a missionary in France as a young man.
On the stump, however, Romney rarely discusses his faith or his religion, preferring to stay focused on matters of policy and the economy. The largest single exception to this rule was a speech Romney gave in December of 2007, in which the former Massachusetts governor strongly defended his belief in what he called the "faith of my fathers" and praised America's core beliefs in the importance of religious tolerance.
When Romney's religion has become a political topic this election cycle, it has rarely been to his benefit. Most notably, in October, an evangelical pastor from Dallas labeled Mormonism a "cult" during a speech in Washington D.C. -- leading to countless stories and questions about what Romney truly believed, effectively jarring the candidate off of his core message for days.
With that in mind, it might have seemed unlikely for Romney to pivot back toward discussing his faith after the initial question.
But a few minutes after the first exchange, in response to a question about whether or not Romney is out of touch with average voters, Romney returned to the issue of his faith, telling his audience that his time as a local LDS ward leader and then stake-president in Massachusetts allowed him to work hands-on with regular folks who needed help:
I’ve had an unusual experience. This gentleman wanted to talk about the doctrines of my religion. I’ll talk about the practices of my faith. I had the occasion in my church to be asked to be the pastor, if you will, of a congregation," Romney said. "I’ve served in that kind of role for about 10 years. And that gave me the occasion to work with people on a very personal basis that were dealing with unemployment, with marital difficulties, with health difficulties of their own and with their kids.”
Most Americans, by the way, are carrying a burden of some kind. We don’t see it, we see someone on the street, they smile and say ‘Hello,’ but behind them they are carrying a bag of rocks. It may be their own health difficulties. It may be concern about a job, it may be inability to pay for the home or the college they were hoping to pay for for a child. But people have burdens in this country, and when you get a chance to know people on a very personal basis, whether you’re serving as a pastor or as a counselor or in other kinds of roles, you understand that every kind of person you see is facing some challenges. And one of the reasons I’m running for president of the United States is I want to help people, I want to lighten those burdens.
Romney also used the experience of his wife, Ann, who has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, to further make a connection with his audience.
“My good wife, I mean, you see her, she’s beautiful, she’s energetic, articulate, but you know, she has MS, and she also had to fight breast cancer. And I watched her as a person with great strength and capacity," Romney said. "You don’t always see the things that are happening in people’s lives, and yet, she wants to help people, and to reach out to those that are facing some difficulty.”