Mormons Confront Negative Ideas About Their Faith

The failed presidential bid of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has many of his fellow Mormons wondering why so many people seem to dislike them.

The Romney candidacy focused unprecedented attention on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons who took part in the effort were surprised by the anti-Mormon sentiment they encountered.

"I just simply called to say 'I'm a volunteer for the Mitt Romney campaign,' and as soon as the Mitt Romney name was out, that's when they'd bring up the issue of Mormonism, and ... it being a cult," recalls Jenna Riggs, a stay-at-home mom in Alexandria, Va., who worked a Romney phone bank the night before Super Tuesday.

The resistance to a Mormon candidate was especially acute among evangelicals who don't believe Mormons are Christians.

"We are a Judeo-Christian country," says Cindy Mosteller, a Southern Baptist and former Republican county chairwoman in South Carolina. "I think to give the presidency to a religion that isn't Judeo-Christian-based in any way, shape or form ... is really giving away our heritage."

Differences Between Faiths

This is what really galls Mormons: "It just is mind-boggling how we could not be Christian," says Russell Ballard, a Mormon apostle who manages public relations for the church. "There is no organization on Earth that has more devotion or acceptance of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ than we do."

Ballard acknowledges that the Mormon version of Christianity isn't the same as other Christian faiths. Those differences attracted opposition to the faith as soon as Joseph Smith began preaching the Mormon gospel more than 150 years ago.

The Romney candidacy highlighted some of those differences in ways that many Mormons had not experienced before. The spotlight on the faith revealed prejudices that some found surprising. And the resistance wasn't limited to evangelicals on the right.

"Romney comes from a religion founded by a criminal who was anti-American, pro-slavery and a rapist," Democratic analyst Lawrence O'Donnell said on The McLaughlin Group in December. O'Donnell's comments got him suspended from the television show, but similar sentiments have appeared elsewhere in mainstream media.

Unaware of Image

Public opinion polls also repeatedly show resistance to putting a Mormon in the White House. Survey after survey finds that from 25 percent to 50 percent of the respondents would not be comfortable with a Mormon president.

"I myself have not really come across, directly, a lot of prejudice about my religion," notes Romney phone bank volunteer Jenna Riggs. "So it really was surprising to me how often I came across people that said it wasn't his platform that was the issue, but it was his religion."

Ballard characterized some of what he heard as "mean-spirited and untrue. It was hurtful that anybody would have that deep of bigotry and meanness."

"Mormons had come to the conclusion that their religion was pretty much accepted," says Richard Bushman, a visiting professor of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in California. "But these horrendous poll results that indicate that Mormons are not first-class citizens because of their religion were terribly shocking."

Bushman describes a comfortable self-image and tendency toward isolation, which left some Mormons unaware of how far the faith's negative reputation had spread. There was also far more positive attention relatively recently, when the Mormon capital of Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Thousands of reporters flocked to Salt Lake City then and wrote stories about the faith that focused on "Mormon behavior," says Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon historian at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, who is writing a book about recent Mormon history.

The image then, Shipps says, was "the Mormons as gracious hosts, the Mormons as having wonderful families, the Mormons as being humanitarians, the Mormons as friendly, the Mormons as welcoming. This whole pattern allowed (the church) to undercut notions about Mormons being weird, being quaint, being odd."

The Romney candidacy attracted reporting that focused on Mormon theology, including its unique approaches to Christian belief and practice.

There were references to "sacred underwear, the notion that Romney's ancestors were polygamists, the whole business about not being able to talk about what goes on in (Mormon) temples," Shipps says. "Mormons don't like to talk about how their beliefs are distinctive. (But) it wasn't enough to say, 'We are Christian.' "

"Sacred underwear" is how some non-Mormons describe special undergarments orthodox Mormons wear in the belief they provide divine protection. Polygamy was once a tenet of the Mormon faith and many members, including Romney, have polygamous ancestors. Mormon temples are open only to faithful Mormons deemed worthy by their local ecclesiastical leaders. Many temple ceremonies are considered sacred and private and Mormons are warned not to reveal anything about them to non-Mormons.

Opportunity to Explain

Shipps summarizes the difference between the Olympics image and today's image this way: "What happened is that the Mormons are part of the cultural mainstream, but they have not been and are not a part of the religious mainstream."

"Until this Romney campaign," Shipps adds, "no one had any sense that this (image) was as widespread as it is."

The church responded by posting explanatory videos on YouTube, by meeting with news editors nationwide, and by encouraging the faithful to fight inaccurate and offensive claims with e-mails and blog postings. Ballard notes that some of the news coverage was respectful and positive. He considers all of the attention, including the negative images, as an opportunity.

"We're speaking out a little bit more than maybe we have done in the past," Ballard says. "We're trying to overcome some of these biases and bigotry. The only way people are going to better understand is if they have an opportunity to talk to us."

Seeking Acceptance

Acceptance for the faith is critical. There are 50,000 Mormon missionaries and 13 million church members around the globe. Continued growth depends on acceptance. That's why image is so important to the faith and to the faithful. And for some, it's very personal.

"I do hope that the country is ready for a Mormon president," says Shelly Astle, another stay-at-home mom and faithful Mormon in Virginia, who worked as a Mitt Romney volunteer, "because I'd hope they'd be ready for a Mormon friend, a Mormon neighbor, someone just like me."

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