By Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY
SALT LAKE CITY — It's easy to find Mormons who have run into misconceptions about their faith. Take Jeff Hartley, executive director of the Republican Party in Utah, a state that's 70% Mormon. "I only have one mom. I only have one wife," he says. "That's not the understanding that a lot of people have."
The emergence of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon waging a strong campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, spotlights a religion often viewed as odd despite its rapid growth and attempts to go mainstream. Hartley and others say they welcome the scrutiny. For Romney, set to announce his candidacy today, it may be less than a blessing.
In a diverse 2008 presidential field that includes a woman and an African-American on the Democratic side, polls show being Mormon is a handicap. In a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, 72% say they would vote for a qualified nominee who is Mormon. That compares with 94% for a black nominee and 88% for a female nominee.
POLL RESULTS: Is race, sex or religion a factor?
In 1960, John F. Kennedy gave a major speech to ease fears about his Catholicism. Joe Lieberman shed light on Orthodox Judaism in 2000 during his vice presidential campaign.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the official name of the Mormon church, has an unusual theology and a past scarred by racism and polygamy. A national political race that conveys its focus on family life and traditional values could improve its image.
"The more people learn about the Mormon faith and culture, the more comfortable they will be," Hartley says. He and others say the same is true for Romney. "A lot of concerns are dispelled once people actually get to know him and his capabilities," says LaVarr Webb, a Mormon and GOP consultant here who plans to donate money to Romney.
There are nearly 6 million Mormons in the USA. Among them are politicians such as Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader; Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who ran for president in 1999; and Romney's late father, George, a Michigan governor and 1968 presidential candidate.
With his Harvard degrees, his success in business, politics, fundraising and as CEO of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney draws a new level of attention to his faith. "It's a floodlight," says political scientist David Magleby, a Mormon and a dean at Brigham Young University in Provo.
Mormons got a taste of intense publicity during the Olympics. "We had literally hundreds of sports reporters writing about theology," LDS spokesman Michael Otterson says wryly. The coverage brought some changes in perception, he says, but they were incremental. "You don't change riveted prejudices overnight," he says.
America's political religion
Romney says it is not his job as a presidential candidate to educate people about his church. "I'm running for a secular position," he said in an interview. "I subscribe to what Abraham Lincoln called America's political religion. The Constitution and the rule of law are the highest promises I would make in taking the oath of office."
Willard Mitt Romney grew up in a Mormon family in Michigan. He met his future girlfriend and wife, Ann Davies, in elementary school.
At 19, after a year at Stanford, Romney began the mission required of Mormon men. He was sent to France to help manage church affairs, work with young people and try to win converts. "It's a very Catholic country, and successes are few and far between," he says, "but I made a number of very good friends."
Romney did have some success at home. While he was gone, Ann started college at church-run BYU. She was "officially Episcopalian," Romney says, but wanted to learn about his church and ended up joining it. On his return from France, Romney enrolled at BYU.
The pair married in 1969, when he was 21 and she was 19, and had five sons over the next dozen years. Ann Romney serves on community service boards, including the New England chapter of the MS Society. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999.
The ex-governor says questions about his faith are fair to ask. Some queries he answers directly. "I don't drink alcohol, I don't smoke, I don't drink coffee or tea. I also do a tithe," he says, meaning he donates 10% of his income to the church. All are church requirements.
Romney responds more generally when asked if he has participated in an endowment ceremony, in which men and women take vows of secrecy about temple rites and of obedience to the Lord, and begin the daily practice of wearing a sacred "temple garment" resembling abbreviated long underwear.
"I do attend the temple of my church … and people can learn about that by contacting the church," he says, adding: "I'm sure on the Internet you can find every single aspect of what's entailed."
'A Mormon problem'
Lieberman's vice presidential campaign amounted to a "national seminar" on orthodox Judaism, says Alan Wolfe, a religion and politics expert at Boston College. People asked questions, such as whether Lieberman could work on the Jewish Sabbath, and learned from his answers. "Whether we can have the same discussion about Mormonism, I don't know," Wolfe says. "It's going to be harder because it is a more controversial religion."
Conservative Hugh Hewitt, a law professor and talk-show host, says one big speech won't be enough. "Mitt Romney has a Mormon problem, as does the rest of the country. It's much bigger than I thought, and it's going to require a lot of conversation and focused study," says Hewitt, author of A Mormon in the White House?: 10 Things Every Conservative Should Know about Mitt Romney, due in March.
Joseph Smith, an unschooled diviner in western New York, founded the LDS church in 1830. He said the angel Moroni had directed him to two golden plates engraved with scripture and Christian history. The text he dictated became the Book of Mormon.
Romney describes LDS as similar to other U.S. churches: "My church teaches first and foremost that there's a God who is our heavenly father, that all the children of the world are his, that humanity is one great family, that we have a duty to serve one another and that we should try and live better lives."
There are several distinctive aspects of Mormonism, however, that shape public perception and may affect Romney's political fate:
•Theology. Historian Jan Shipps, author of Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, says Mormons hold beliefs that "people always find sort of strange." Among them: People are on a journey toward godhood, the dead can be baptized, and God speaks to man today through living apostles and prophets, such as LDS president Gordon Hinckley. Mormons also believe the Book of Mormon is the word of God while the Bible is "the word of God as far as it is translated correctly."
•Polygamy. The Mormon church banned polygamy in 1890 and punishes it with excommunication. Yet any time a tiny sect is charged in a polygamy case, says Richard Ostling, co-author of Mormon America, people recall Mormon history, and some think the church still sanctions the practice.
The situation is aggravated by Big Love, an HBO television series about polygamists who live in Utah but who are not Mormons. "They have tried to make it plain in their publicity and their scripts," Otterson says. "The trouble is that any time you mention Utah and polygamy, then you draw the association."
•Racial history. All devout Mormon men are ordained as priests, but blacks were excluded until 1978 when church president Spencer Kimball said he had a revelation from the Lord that "every faithful, worthy man in the Church" may receive priesthood. "Since then the church has made a tremendous effort to appeal to black members," Shipps says.
•Secrecy. Ostling calls the church "unusually secretive for an institution of its size." Financial and administrative matters are closely held, he says. Chapel services are open, but temples and worship ceremonies, including weddings, are closed to non-Mormons. The Romneys were married in a civil ceremony attended by Ann's parents and hundreds of guests, followed by a small temple ceremony for Mormons only.
•Discipline. Mormons are free to disagree with their church but can be excommunicated by local authorities for heretical teachings or open challenges to theology and practices. They can't attend temple, take communion or tithe but can go to chapel services and stay active. "There is no shunning," Shipps says. Author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Harvard historian and practicing Mormon, says she "deplores" the excommunications but adds that they are not unique to her faith.
•Proselytizing. Mormons energetically seek members from other faiths. Sometimes they perform proxy baptisms of deceased Jews and other non-Mormons, in case they want to convert in the afterlife. Ulrich says the Mormon view is "we're the truth, and we want to convert you." Asked to square that with a president's duty to a diverse nation, Romney says that "almost every faith I've ever encountered tends to make people better people and draw them closer to their creator. I respect and admire almost every faith I've encountered."
Does he disagree with any aspect of LDS? "I wouldn't take it upon myself to try in any way to distance myself from my faith. I love my church. I am not going to pick and choose doctrines and beliefs."
Romney pitches himself as a competent manager; a successful entrepreneur; a conservative governor who fought gay marriage and passed a universal health-insurance plan; a turnaround artist who saved the 2002 Olympics from financial ruin and ran an unprecedented security operation for the games just a few months after 9/11.
He's also running as a social conservative whose views have evolved rightward, most dramatically from support for abortion rights to opposition. His evolution is one cause for wariness among some of the Christian conservatives who are influential in early primary states such as Iowa and South Carolina. His religion is another.
Magleby, who is a Democrat, says religious conservatives know Mormons are "rock-solid" allies on values issues such as gambling, pornography and same-sex marriage. "But the religious doctrines of the church are often found unacceptable to the religious right. To some, Mormons are seen as a sect and a threat," he says.
The North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention has produced The Mormon Puzzle, a video that highlights "extra-biblical scriptures … unorthodox doctrines and aggressive missionary efforts" by Mormons. The Arizona-based concernedchristians.org instructs Mormons on how to resign from their church.
Magleby and Wolfe say Romney should heed Arizona Sen. John McCain's experience in South Carolina's 2000 primary. McCain was accused, among other things, of having illegitimate children, betraying veterans and being brainwashed while a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Magleby predicts polygamy will be "a major attack point below the radar and maybe above." Wolfe says such attacks will start "the minute you get into the Republican primaries and somebody gets desperate."
Romney says that's the nature of politics and "not something that scares away a person who cares very deeply about the country." He says he's met with evangelical Christian pastors and found them receptive: "We acknowledge that our theology is quite different, but our values are the same."
Is there any political benefit to being Mormon? The church occasionally weighs in on values issues, such as the Equal Rights Amendment, gay marriage and gambling and liquor laws, but it avoids party politics. No endorsements. No candidate appearances. No use of membership lists by campaigns.
Still, Magleby envisions a surge of money and support similar to what Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis received from Greek-Americans in 1988: "There was a sense of connection and pride that many Mormons will have for Romney."