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Romney's political success is a mixed blessing for Mormon Church

His presidential candidacy could be a breakthrough 'JFK moment for Mormons,' but it could also stir up more negative publicity for the church.

February 02, 2012|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times
  • Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, right, attend the funeral of Mormon Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in 2008. With them, from left, are fellow well-known Mormons Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah); businessman and Republican figure Jon Huntsman Sr.; and Jacalyn Leavitt, former first lady of Utah.
Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, right, attend the funeral of Mormon Church… (Church of Jesus Christ of…)

Republicans look at Mitt Romney and see a future nominee or a Massachusetts moderate they can't support. Democrats see a formidable opponent with abundant vulnerabilities to exploit.

For one group, though, Romney's candidacy represents a unique mix of hopes and fears, pride and apprehension. Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a lot riding on Romney's candidacy — which is one reason why, paradoxically, they have steered clear of anything that smacks of support for the man who could become the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major political party.

As Romney heads into Saturday's GOP caucuses in Nevada, his religion may work in his favor for the first time in this year's campaign. About a fourth of Nevada's GOP primary voters in 2008 were Mormons; they went heavily for Romney then and probably will again.

Nevada, however, is an anomaly, the state that produced the highest-ranking Mormon in American political history, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat.

The nomination of Romney, a onetime Mormon bishop who remains active in the church, would be "a 1960, JFK moment for Mormons, where the glass ceiling is shattered," said Patrick Q. Mason, a professor of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University, referring toJohn F. Kennedy's election as the first Catholic president.

It also may be fraught with risk, something that hasn't escaped attention of the church hierarchy in Salt Lake City.

"It's a bit of a delicate balance," said church spokesman Michael Purdy. "We're always happy to talk about our faith, and this election has certainly added to the national conversation going on about our church. We welcome the opportunity to participate in that conversation and are pleased when people come to us directly as a source of information, but we're not interested in the political side of the discussion."

By many accounts, the leadership of the Latter-day Saints was taken aback by the amount of anti-Mormon sentiment aired during Romney's unsuccessful 2008 campaign for the Republican nomination. The church was also said to have been shocked by a backlash over its central role in the campaign forProp. 8, the California initiative that halted same-sex marriages in the state.

The two events amounted to "a wake-up call in Salt Lake City that the church has a serious image problem," said David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame and coauthor of "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us."

One result was a public relations campaign, "I'm a Mormon," which has featured television commercials and Web videos of Mormons from every walk of life. The message is: We're your neighbors, and we're not as different as you might think.

The commercials have aired in eight states — New York, Texas, Georgia, Arizona, Nebraska, Colorado, Washington and Indiana. Purdy said the ads were in no way intended to help the Romney campaign, and that the church avoided states with active Republican primaries (although Nebraska shares some markets with Iowa).

Still, it didn't hurt that the commercials came at a time when interest in the Mormon Church was surging, between the Romney campaign and assorted pop culture references, including the hit Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon."

"I don't think it was calculated as a tie-in" to the Romney campaign, said Terryl Givens, a leading Mormon scholar at the University of Richmond. "But I think the timing is fortuitous."

Similarly, BYUtv, the cable channel of Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young University, recently aired a three-part series marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, which is part of the Mormon canon. Publicity material for the series, "Fires of Faith," stressed that Mormons are Christians, something many Americans do not believe, and said the series could "help educate the public about who the Mormons are, and what matters to them."

Scott Swofford, creative director of BYUtv, said the series wasn't initially planned for a non-Mormon audience, and wasn't designed to drive home a pro-Mormon message. But, he said, "I will say, I'd be quite pleased if someone watches it and realizes that we're Christian."

Swofford said he also had a role in the "I'm a Mormon" campaign. Neither effort had any tie-in to the Romney campaign; they are instead part of a long-standing effort by the Mormon Church to "get word out that Mormons are not that strange," he said.

"That's a concerted effort that I think will go forward regardless of the current political moment," he said. "I certainly wish Mr. Romney well," he continued, adding, "or whoever the nominee is."

Romney has received substantial support from individual Mormons, some with deep pockets. But churches face the loss of their tax exemption if they take an overt stand in a partisan campaign. Beyond that, the church would face two dangers by aligning with Romney.

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