Mitt Romney isn’t the only casualty in his failed presidential bid. The Mormon church, yearning for broad acceptance, also took a beating.
Extremists denounced Romney’s campaign as a Mormon plot to take over the country. Some Evangelicals feared that a Mormon in the White House would draw more converts to his faith.
Mormon practices were picked apart, even ones that had been abandoned long ago such as polygamy. Romney tried to focus on politics, but was often asked about sacred Mormon undergarments.
“It is prejudice,” said Richard Bushman, an emeritus professor at Columbia University, who is a leading historian and devout Mormon. “Underlying all these questions is that these beliefs are basically crazy so you’ve got to explain them to us.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints anticipated some of the backlash and tried to get ahead of it. Well before the former Massachusetts governor officially announced his candidacy, Mormon officials started traveling the country, speaking with reporters and editorial writers about the LDS church and its political neutrality.
The goal was to protect the church. But nonpartisanship handicapped the denomination when it needed a vigorous defense.
“I’m not questioning the policy of neutrality. That’s not in any doubt,” said Michael Otterson, the church’s media relations director. “But I think the very reality is that we’ve had to be very careful about choosing our words and not appearing to either be supporting or not supporting a particular candidate.”
Before Romney ran, Mormons thought they were generally accepted in the mainstream, especially after their previous success in the world spotlight: the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics.
Yet, in November, half of respondents to an Associated Press-Yahoo poll said they had some problems supporting a Mormon presidential candidate. Among white evangelicals, more than half expressed reservations about backing a Latter-day Saint.
“I was surprised at the level of intensity and sometimes flat out animosity,” said Lowell C. Brown, a Los Angeles attorney who is Mormon. “I had no idea. I’m in my 50s, I’ve been a Mormon all my life, I’ve lived in L.A. for 25 years, and it floored me.”
Many Christians said they were raising legitimate theological concerns, not Mormon-bashing.
The news service of the Southern Baptist Convention, which considers the LDS church a cult, ran a six-part series through December explaining why they don’t consider Mormonism to be Christian. (They also profiled a distant Romney relative who is Protestant and manages a Southern Baptist-affiliated bookstore in Salt Lake.)
In just one example of the practices that set Mormons apart, LDS church founder Joseph Smith revised — and in his view corrected — parts of the Bible.
Brown said it was “nonsense” to consider questions about Romney’s faith simply a dialogue about religion. Mormons were especially outraged when GOP presidential contender Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist pastor, asked whether Mormons consider Jesus and the devil brothers. Latter-day Saints say Huckabee’s question is usually raised by those who wish to smear the Mormon faith rather than clarify doctrine.
“If you’re making a decision about whether or not to vote for someone because of their religion, you’re flirting with bigotry,” said Brown. He monitored the commentary on his blog Article VI, named for the constitutional provision barring any religious test for public office.
Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, a prominent evangelical school in Pasadena, Calif., said some Christian conservatives consider Mormonism not just a questionable faith, but also a rival political force. He lived in Michigan in the 1960s, when Romney’s father, George, was governor there. At that time, evangelicals weren’t deeply involved in politics. Many supported George Romney.
“What’s going on when his son runs and all of a sudden there’s this overt hostility that came out, which did not come out toward his father,” said Mouw, who is part of a group of evangelical and Mormon scholars who meet to discuss their theological disagreements. “I’m kind of ashamed of the way that a lot of traditional Christians have handled this.”
Yet, Mormons say some good has come from the attacks. Romney’s candidacy pulled the church even further into the public square.
Mormon leaders posted videos on YouTube explaining their faith. A church elder, recently speaking to Mormon college students, urged young people to post about the Latter-day Saints on blogs — a major move for a denomination with a history of quietly answering its outside critics. After Romney’s Dec. 6 speech in Texas defending his faith, a Mormon leader went on al-Jazeera television, the Quatar-based network, to discuss the church.
“Gov. Romney has, perhaps without intending to do so, rendered the church a service,” said Robert Millet, a scholar of the church and professor at the LDS-owned Brigham Young University. “It’s served as a kind of wakeup call for Saints themselves to the fact that we’re not as well understood as we think we are. How can it be the case that Gov. Romney and his feelings about Christ and his feelings about religion have been so little understood?”