NEW YORK (AP) — Evangelical leaders worried that Mitt Romney's Mormonism could suppress conservative turnout on Election Day are intensifying appeals for Christians to vote.
In poll after poll, evangelicals have overwhelmingly said they would back the Republican presidential nominee despite theological differences with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But what had been thought of as a hypothetical question for American evangelicals for years, Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler said recently, is now a reality with this election and is being tested in a contest that will likely be decided by slim margins.
"The fact is that Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and many of our people are very, very uncomfortable about voting for a Mormon, as I am. I supported somebody else in the primary. But, hey, we have no option," said Steve Strang, an influential Pentecostal publisher, in a conference call with pastors last week.
Strang was speaking to participants in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an annual challenge to IRS rules on churches' political activity. While arguing that the government regulations had the effect of silencing pastors, he also cited Mormonism as one reason clergy haven't more forcefully urged congregants to vote this year.
"The Mormons are good, God-fearing people in their own way," Strang said. "We have to be sure our people don't stay at home."
Last month, more than two dozen prominent evangelical leaders issued a statement emphasizing the values spelled out in the GOP platform against abortion, gay marriage and other policies were more important than an individual politician's religion. Christians generally do not consider Mormonism part of historic Christianity, although Mormons do.
"Some have tempered their enthusiasm for sound governing principles by their concerns over differences in a candidate's theological doctrine," the letter states, without mentioning Mormonism. "It is time to remind ourselves that civil government is not about a particular theology but rather about public policy."
Among those signing the statement were the Rev. Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; veteran political operative Ralph Reed of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a political action group for religious conservatives; Mark DeMoss, an evangelical adviser to the Romney campaign; and Frank Wright, head of the National Religious Broadcasters, the Washington lobby for Christian radio, TV and digital media.
Evangelicals make up about a third of voters who are registered or lean Republican. Some Republicans have estimated that a significant number of Christian conservatives have not been voting in presidential elections and have focused on getting them registered. But that effort has a new wrinkle this year: Romney is the first Mormon nominee for president from a major party.
DeMoss, who has supported Romney since his first bid for the GOP nomination in 2008, said he has found evangelical concerns about voting for a Mormon steadily decreasing, "but there are people for whom it still is an issue."
The Assemblies of God, a Missouri-based Pentecostal group with more than 12,600 U.S. churches, has launched its first national voter education and registration drive in a presidential-election year. George O. Wood, the denomination's leader, said he was inspired to undertake the project by Champion the Vote, which works to identify and mobilize previously unregistered conservative Christians.
The Assemblies of God voter drive makes no mention of specific candidates or their religion, but the denomination is among the many Christian churches that, in an effort to counter what it considers heretical, has been challenging Mormonism as unbiblical. Pentecostals are known for spirit-filled worship, belief in divine healing and, according to surveys, their social conservatism.
"I think our people recognize we live in a pluralistic culture, therefore one has to look at a candidate and see what values and policies they have independent of what their religious association might be and make a determination on that basis," Wood said in a phone interview. "You can form friendships with people even though you don't agree with them doctrinally."
Pastors are struggling to get that message across while still making clear that important doctrinal differences with Mormons remain. Conservative Christians believe they have a duty to point out beliefs they fear could lead others astray and risk their salvation.
As Strang was getting out the vote last month, the news editor of his best-known magazine, Charisma, wrote a column calling Mormonism "bizarre" and a "Christianesque cult." Another columnist called Mormon doctrines "creepy and (with apologies to Mitt Romney) demonic."
Janet Parshall, a veteran Christian broadcaster now with Moody Radio, invited on her show Tricia Erickson, a former Mormon turned born-again Christian and author of "Can Mitt Romney Serve Two Masters? The Mormon Church Versus the Office of the Presidency of the United States of America."
Parshall effusively praised Mormons for their dedication to family and compassion for others. She spoke fondly about working with Mormons in Washington. "When we would fight for pro-family issues, boy I tell you, we'd be able to do that with our Mormon friends because they shared the same kinds of values that we did," Parshall said. But she said there was a need to point out "what is biblically correct and what is not." In the ensuing interview, Erickson went on to call Mormonism blasphemous and describe rituals inside Mormon temples, which are for Mormons in good standing only, as "silly," ''bizarre" and "violent."
Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler and other academics took up the issue in a discussion last month at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship training ground for future leaders of the nearly 16 million-member denomination. Called "The Mormon Moment? Religious Conviction and the 2012 Election," the speakers went to great lengths to emphasize that religion should not be a consideration when voting.
Russell Moore, a theologian and a seminary dean, said a candidate's religious outlook should be examined specifically for "whether or not the person is going to be able to work for the common good." But he and others warned that supporting a candidate for president does not mean accepting his faith.
"If a President Romney is elected," Moore said, "we're the people who are willing to, if we're invited into the Oval Office, say, 'President Romney, here's where we agree with you, here's what we like about what you're doing, and we sincerely want to plead with you to believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ so you don't perish everlasting.'"