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Meet the presidential candidates

Mitt Romney

Analysis

BOSTON - With two weeks left before the Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney is in second place there, behind Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, according to a Washington Post/ABC News Iowa poll published Dec. 20 on www.timesonline.uk.

Despite the reams of articles, interviews and speeches, the former Massachusetts governor's positions on Indian country remain unknown. Romney's Web site lists about a dozen top priorities - national security and fighting ''Radical Jihad'' being prominent among them - but nowhere are American Indians mentioned.

A Mormon and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Romney delivered a speech called ''Faith in America'' at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas on Dec. 6.

With almost 30 percent of Americans saying they were reluctant to vote for a Mormon, Romney's campaign had wrestled for months with the question of how - or whether - to address public concerns about his religion. Romney promised that the speech would discuss ''how my own values and my own faith will inform my thinking.''

The mainstream media hyped Romney's speech for days before the event, comparing it to John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech about being a Catholic, which coincidentally also took place in Texas in front of an assembly of Protestant ministers. But that's where the similarity between the two speeches ended. Kennedy and Romney even differed on their responses to giving a speech on religion.

Kennedy thought ''from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election.'' The ''real issues which should decide this campaign ... are not religious issues - for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.''

Romney, on the other hand, positioned himself and his religious belief squarely in the tradition of the ''founding fathers'' - a colonist/settler point of view that excludes any indigenous perspectives.

''There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. If so, they are at odds with the nation's founders, for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessings of the Creator. And further, they discovered the essential connection between the survival of a free land and the protection of religious freedom. ... Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,'' Romney said, a principle that the Founding Fathers didn't apply to the indigenous peoples they found populating the eastern coast of the ''new world.''

In his speech, Kennedy promised to resign if he ever found himself in the position of having to make a decision that would either ''violate my conscience or violate the national interest.''

Romney, on the other hand, made contradictory statements about how his religion would impact his decision-making.

''When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God. If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest. A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States,'' he said, asserting that his religion would not color his decisions.

But in his next statements, Romney canceled out that assertion: ''I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers - I will be true to them and to my beliefs.''

Why is there such an interest in Romney's religion? For the same reason the public was interested in Kennedy's Catholicism.

''The problem is not to deny the religion issue or to brand as intolerant those who raise it. The problem is to place it in proper perspective and determine where the candidate stands in relation to that perspective,'' said the Rev. Herbert Mesa, vice chairman of the Association of Ministers, who introduced Kennedy to his audience almost 50 years ago.

In general, Mormons have a number of uncommon beliefs - that at least some American Indians are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel; that Jesus eventually visited them in what is now the United States and will meet up with them in Missouri at the end of the world; that God was once a man and lives in a distant solar system; that believers may become gods and rule other planets.

Following Kennedy's speech, he was asked two basic questions: Will the Catholic Church tell him what to do? Would he favor one religious group over another?

There was no question and answer period at the end of Romney's speech.

Indian leaders contacted by Indian Country Today were reluctant to comment on Romney's speech, his candidacy or his religion.

But John Brown, a Narragansett tribal council member, medicine man in training and the tribe's historic preservation officer, dismissed the Mormon belief that America's indigenous peoples are descended from the lost tribes of Israel.

''If anything, life went the other way around, from here to there,'' Brown said.

For Indian country, Romney's speech raised more questions than it answered: Do Mormons consider Indians to be ''the chosen people,'' since they see some Indians as descendants of the lost tribes of Israel? If so, would a Mormon president more readily pass Indian-specific laws? How would that belief affect U.S. policy in the Middle East? Would it benefit Indian country to have a president who belongs to a minority, but growing, religion? How would Romney approach Native spirituality issues? Would his presence in the White House have any effect on the states' views toward Native spiritual practices, such as Sweatlodges, in federal and state prisons? Or would a Mormon White House take a stricter view of certain Indian practices involving tobacco, since Mormons abstain from tobacco use? Would there be more restrictive laws on tobacco and Indian tobacco shops? Would Romney's belief in totally unrestrained market capitalism and a minimalist role for government other than to provide a strong military in a national security state help or hinder Indian country?

Just how far-reaching Romney's strongly expressed religious belief and views would go remains unknown. His office did not return multiple calls seeking comment.

For Romney's speech, go to www.mittromney.com/News/Speeches/Faith_In_America. For Kennedy's speech, visit www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16920600.