Mitt Romney And The Mormon-Israeli Connection

ANALYSIS

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on July 30 2012 1:40 PM
Romney
Mitt Romney's immigration views are under scrutiny. Reuters

Republican candidate Mitt Romney has made his support of Israel clear. While visiting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who considers the former governor of Massachusetts a friend, over the weekend, Romney laid down part of his foreign policy plan for the Jewish state, indicating that he would be friendlier toward the state than his Democratic competitor, Barack Obama.

Although he chose not to elaborate on how his plan is different from Obama's -- typical of presidential challengers traveling abroad -- he put the defense of Israel from external threats, such as Iran's budding nuclear program, as the "highest national-security priority."

While Romney's trip was politically oriented, it carried with it the influence of his Mormon faith. Romney has said that "there's no question (my experiences in the church) helped shape my perspective" and he said that his trip to Israel, which included a visit to the Wailing Wall, had a spiritual impact on him.

"I come to this place, therefore, with a sense of profound humility, as I look around here at great people who've accomplished a great thing, and also a sense of spiritual connection, acknowledging the hand of providence in establishing this place and making it a holy city," Romney said at a breakfast on Monday.

Ideologically, Mormons, perhaps even more than other Christian faiths, feel connected to Israel. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said during a 2007 trip to the country that "Jerusalem ... constitutes the scene, the setting and the circumference of our religious heritage," in part because the Book of Mormon teaches that the Tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim, two of the 12 tribes of Israel, migrated to the United States and are the ancestors of many Mormons. (There is also a belief that the Native Americans were descended from Israelites.)

The Church of Latter-Day Saints' ties to Israel are almost as old as the church itself. Early Mormon leaders such as Orson Hyde campaigned to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem -- in part because he believed it would usher in the second coming of Christ. Additionally, the church supported the creation of the state of Israel, and Brigham Young University established a campus in Jerusalem in the 1980s.

Current LDS members have described Israel as a "second home" and say they "feel a special closeness" to the country.

Israelis, generally, aren't as enthusiastic about Mormons as Mormons are about them, although their attitude should not be described as hostile. 

During the Republican primary, Romney was more popular among American Jewish voters and among Israelis than his fellow candidates, in part because of his faith, according to the Daily Beast.  In general, Jews prefer Mormons to evangelicals like Rick Santorum.

A study conducted by Robert D. Putnam of Harvard and David E. Campbell of Notre Dame found that Mormons had a higher approval rate among American Jews than other Christians, Catholics, Muslims and atheists, likely because "Jews and Mormons are the two American groups most likely to report that other people disparage their religious beliefs."

Interestingly, Romney hopes that he can win evangelical votes by supporting Israel. Moreover, Romney's relationship with Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate and staunch Israel supporter who financed Newt Gingrich's campaign, shows the fundraising potential embedded in a pro-Zionist stance.  

But there is still some wariness among Israeli Jews. When BYU opened its Jerusalem campus, Israelis protested over concerns that it would be used as a missionary base. Students must now sign a non-proselytizing agreement, and, according to Forward, church members who go to Israel for their requisite mission trip "arrive with a goal of conversations, not conversions."

But Mina Fenton, an Orthodox member of Jerusalem's city council, said in 2007 that "we must remember that the Mormons have a strong belief in missionary work ... They have big, big money and they buy things. I call it the money crusade against Jews." Additionally, some Israelis have also taken offense to the Mormon's insistence that they are the descendants of the Israelites.

Regardless, Israelis, like Americans, are largely judging Mitt Romney by his policies and actions. Various polls have Romney's approval approaching Obama's in the Holy Land, if not exceeding it, thanks to the hard line Romney has taken toward Iran, and in part to the perception that Obama is soft on the issue.

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