Mormon political clout grows

WASHINGTON — When Sen. Harry Reid becomes Senate majority leader next year, he will be the most powerful Mormon in Washington.

But that reign could be short-lived if Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney makes a bid for the presidency in 2008 and wins. Romney is considering a run in what is expected to be a wide-open field.

Reid is a Democrat from Nevada and Romney is a Republican. Though they have chosen different political stripes, they are bonded in a faith whose leaders encourage members to become active in public life.

Mormons are heeding the call. Typically conservative, they are more politically active than average Americans, according to a recent study. And the 15 Mormons in Congress is a slightly greater representation than the religious group’s percentage of the general population.

“From the pulpit, they talk about the importance of being involved in the community, being involved in politics,” said Dean Heller, a Mormon who was just elected to represent Nevada in the House. “They want members of the church to be integrated into society.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the church is officially called, believes the nation’s founders were men of God and that the U.S. Constitution was divinely inspired.

But as politically active as Mormons may be, their faith is largely misunderstood by most Americans.

The Mormon Church

Given that the theology and practice of the Mormon Church violates essential Christian doctrines, Mormonism does not represent historical, Biblical Christianity, is not a Christian denomination, and is not in any way part of the Christian church.

Some evangelical Christians consider the faith a cult, and 35% of Americans say they would not vote for a Mormon for president, according to a recent poll.

That presents a particular challenge for Romney, who so far has steered clear of any public discussion about his religion.

“Because religion matters in politics, it represents opportunities and challenges for candidates,” said John Green, at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “Candidates have to be very cautious when it comes to talking about their faith.”

A Time magazine story set to hit the news stands next week features an article titled “Can a Mormon be president?”

Quin Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, says Romney’s faith would likely matter to only a minority of voters.

“If a Mormon can be elected as governor of Massachusetts and a Mormon can be Senate majority leader, certainly a Mormon can be president,” he said.

A religious minority, Mormons represent less than 2% of the American population with 5.5 million members across the country. The church, which claims a total of 12 million members, is one of the fastest growing faiths in the world.

Roughly 80% of Americans consider themselves Christians, with Protestants making up about half of that group. About a quarter are Catholic.

Like Mormons, Jews and Episcopalians are also overrepresented in Congress. For example, Episcopalians make up less than 1% of the American population but 8% of Congress.

John M. Haddow, a former legislative director for Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, said the senator was always open about his Mormon faith. Hatch briefly ran for the GOP presidential nomination six years ago.

Mormons have come a long way since Joseph Smith founded the church in upstate New York in the early 1800s. An angry mob killed Smith shortly after he announced his candidacy for president in 1844.

Sixty years later, Utah Republican Reed Smoot became the first Mormon elected to the Senate. His arrival sparked congressional hearings on polygamy, a practice officially banned by Mormon leaders in 1890. Smoot, who was not a polygamist, served five terms.

Mormons still face questions about polygamy — fueled in part by the HBO show Big Love about a Utah man and his multiple wives. Recent news coverage of a rape trial against the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints, has also kept the issue in the public arena.

But church members and others say these associations are unfair.

They point to John F. Kennedy, who overcame questions about his religion to become the first Catholic elected president in 1960.

“He broke the ground for people like Romney to run without regard to their specific faith tradition,” said the Rev. Bob Edgar, of the National Council of Churches and a former Pennsylvania congressman.

Reid, who attends a Mormon church just outside Washington and keeps the Book of Mormon in his office, was not born into the faith. He joined the church in college and raised his five children in the church.

“The church has been a wonderful thing in my life,” he said. “It helps me try to always do the right thing, understand that what you do has consequences.”

Still, he recently drew sharp criticism from church leaders by voting against a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. He thinks gay marriage is a states’ rights issue.

Although Mormon religious leaders do not endorse specific candidates, the church has at times expressed its opinion on issues such as gambling and same-sex marriage, said church spokeswoman Kim Farah.

“We believe we have an obligation as members of the communities in which we live and as citizens of the nation to engage in the political process in an informed way,” she said in an e-mail. “However, church members are to make their own choices and affiliations in partisan politics.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday December 2, 2006.
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