With less than three months until the election, both Romney and Obama are facing increasing questions about their faith.
Both responded for a story published Tuesday in the Washington National Cathedral magazine, Cathedral Age.
Romney wrote that he was "lay pastor in my church" but didn't use the word Mormon or name the church anywhere in his answers. Asked to address uneasiness about his faith, Romney responded, "Every religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These should not be bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance."
Terryl Givens, a University of Richmond professor and Mormon scholar, argued that the theological specifics are less important than the "service, sacrifice and compassion" evident in Romney's church experience that can speak to his character and values. He said Romney could "speak compellingly about the real world problems of poverty, broken families, personal struggle and loss" he has witnessed as a church leader "that could bridge the gulf between his seemingly aloof and distant public persona and a person of genuine empathy and compassion."
Mormonism is both a belief system and an all-encompassing way of life that stresses hard work and volunteerism along with religious observance. Latter-day Saints commit from a few hours to 25 hours a week to serving in the church, in addition to their careers and family obligations. The 10 percent annual tithe they pay the church is only a start to what they're expected to donate.
Like most young Mormon men, Romney served for more than two years as an LDS missionary in France. Then, starting in the 1980s, he spent about 14 years as a volunteer Mormon leader in Massachusetts.
He was a bishop in the Boston suburb of Belmont, a job akin to the pastor of a congregation. He then served as a stake president, the top Mormon authority in his region, which meant he presided over several congregations in a district similar to a diocese. He counseled Latter-day Saints on their most personal concerns, regarding marriage, parenting, finances and faith. He worked with immigrant converts from Haiti, Cambodia and other countries.
But the former governor wasn't a clergy person in a way familiar to most Americans. Mormons have no fulltime paid clergy and instead are led by volunteer lay people, a distinction that Mormons have had to explain to outsiders more familiar with Roman Catholic or Protestant ministers.
His tenure as bishop was not without controversy. He held local authority at a time when Mormon women were seeking a greater church role, and he sometimes clashed with them over social issues and personal decisions about children and family. Romney's generosity to the church could also make him look too closely aligned with the institution.
Obama, for his part, has dramatically reduced his talk about faith on the campaign trail compared to the 2008 race.
In a Pew survey last month, only 49 percent of respondents could correctly identify Obama as Christian. A third of voters said they don't know his religion. Meanwhile, the percentage who wrongly think he's Muslim has increased since 2008, from 12 percent to 17 percent.
"There's not much I can do about it. I have a job to do as president and that does not involve convincing folks that my faith in Jesus is legitimate and real," Obama wrote in his answers to Cathedral Age. "What I can do is just keep on following Him, and serve others."
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