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Mitt Romney tells 'Meet the Press' Mormon faith 'made me the person I am'

Brad KnickerbockerThe Christian Science Monitor

In the minds of many voters, two things about Mitt and Ann Romney have set them apart from most Americans: their wealth and their Mormon faith.

Both issues – personal and in some ways deeply private – have seemed at least a distraction from their main campaign message, which is to focus on the US economy and the way in which they frame President Obama’s failure to adequately deal with persistent joblessness.

At the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., the Romneys’ religion was addressed more openly than it had been to date – although more so by fellow Mormons who told of Mr. Romney’s prayerful compassion and practical help in times of deep trouble than by the candidate himself.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, the Romney couple themselves opened up more about their faith and also about the perception – pushed by Democrats – that their wealth leaves them out-of-touch with most Americans struggling in difficult times.

“I'm convinced that my background, and my heritage and my faith have made me the person I am to a great degree,” Romney said. “The Judeo-Christian ethics that I was brought up with, the sense of obligation to one's fellow man, and an absolute conviction that we are all sons and daughters of the same God and therefore, in a human family, is one of the reasons I’m doing what I'm doing.”

While carefully noting that he does not speak for all Mormons or for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he said, “I'm sure a number of members of my faith are proud of the fact that someone of my faith – our faith – is able to run for president.”

Have Mormons in America and around the world gotten past a level of persecution, that they can very openly be proud of what the two of you are doing? Mrs. Romney was asked.

“I certainly hope so,” she replied. “I mean, it's always wonderful when milestones like that are accomplished, and I think that was why we were all so pleased with the last election – seeing that a black man was elected President of the United States. It made us proud as Americans to know that those prejudices that we've had in the past are falling away.”

The Romney’s both come from relatively well-to-do families, and they’ve achieved financial success to the point where their net worth is estimated to be a quarter of a billion dollars. Along the way – despite a convention narrative that included the young couple living in a basement apartment and dining on tuna casseroles – they acknowledge that they’ve never struggled financially.

“But I want people to believe in their hearts that we know what it is like to struggle,” Ann Romney said. “Our struggles have not been financial but they've been with health and with difficulties in different things in life.”

“Multiple sclerosis has been my teacher,” she said. “It has been at times a cruel teacher. But it has also been a great gift in my life because it has taught me to be more compassionate and caring for others who are suffering, and I know that people are suffering right now…. Our lives have always been devoted to those that are struggling more than we are, and I am grateful for the opportunity that we had at the convention for others to speak up and talk about the kind of lives we've led.”

It’s unclear whether growing public knowledge of Mitt Romney and his faith will work to his benefit by Election Day. Bias against a Mormon presidential candidate – 18 percent would not vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who happens to be a Mormon, according to a Gallup survey in June – has not changed in 45 years.

“Both George Romney in 1967 and his son Mitt Romney in 2012 faced the same level of prejudice against their religion, even though so much else has changed in politics and in US society between these two points in American history,” Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport wrote in his analysis. “The stability of resistance to a Mormon presidential candidate over the past 45 years is an anomaly, given that resistance to a candidate who is black, a woman, or Jewish has declined substantially over the same period of time.”