STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Some religious leaders in this country see an opportunity in a failed presidential campaign. Mitt Romney suspended his bid for the Republican nomination. His defeat left many of his fellow Mormons asking why so many people dislike them.
NPR's Howard Berkes reports on how church leaders are responding to the views that some Mormons encountered.
HOWARD BERKES: Jenna Riggs(ph) is a stay-at-home mom and faithful Mormon in Alexandria, Virginia, who couldn't believe what she heard on the telephone.
M: And I just simply called and saying I'm a volunteer for the Mitt Romney campaign. And as soon as the Mitt Romney name was out that's when they would bring up the issue of Mormonism, particularly bringing up it being a cult.
BERKES: Riggs worked the Mitt Romney phone bank the night before Super Tuesday.
M: I myself have not really come across directly a lot of prejudice towards my religion. It really was surprising to me how often I came across people that really said it wasn't his platform that was an issue, it was his religion.
BERKES: This resistance to a Mormon candidate was especially acute among evangelicals who don't believe Mormons are Christians. But it also showed up in average voters. In survey after survey from a quarter to a half of those polled didn't like the idea of a Mormon president. Sometimes the resistance sounded vicious. Here's Lawrence O'Donnell, a political analyst on the television show The McLaughlin Group.
M: Look, Romney comes from a religion founded by a criminal who was anti-American, pro-slavery, and a rapist.
BERKES: The anti-Mormon tone didn't surprise Russell Ballard, the leader responsible for public relations at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It came with the founding of the faith, he says, when Joseph Smith claimed it as the one true church, and it persisted beyond the practice of polygamy, which was abandoned a century ago. But Ballard was surprised by comments he describes as...
M: ...mean-spirited, and untrue. It was hurtful that anybody would have that deep of bigotry and meanness to do what we've had some do.
BERKES: The faith responded by posting explanatory videos on YouTube, by meeting with news editors nationwide, and by encouraging the faithful to fight the inaccurate and offensive with e-mails and blog postings. Richard Bushman is a professor of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.
INSKEEP: Mormons had come to the conclusion that their religion was pretty much accepted. But these horrendous poll results that indicate that Mormons are not first-class citizens because of their religion was terribly shocking.
BERKES: Bushman describes a comfortable self-image and tendency towards isolation which left some Mormons unaware of the faith's reputation. There were also times when the attention was pretty positive. Jan Shipps is a non-Mormon who is writing a book about recent Mormon history. She cites the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City when reporters focused on Mormon behavior.
M: ...the Mormons as gracious hosts, the Mormons as having wonderful families, the Mormons as being humanitarian, the Mormons as friendly, the Mormons as welcoming. This whole pattern allowed them to undercut notions about Mormons being weird, being quaint, being odd.
BERKES: But the coverage during the Romney campaign focused on theology and how the Mormon faith differs from conventional Christianity. There was more attention than ever perhaps to everything from sacred undergarments to secretive ceremonies. Still, Mormon leader Russell Ballard considers it all an opportunity.
M: We're just speaking out a little bit more than we maybe have done in the past. We're trying to overcome some of these biases and some of this bigotry. The only way that people are gonna better understand us is if they have an opportunity to talk to us.
BERKES: 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 the faithful. And for some, it's very personal.
M: I do hope that the country is ready for a Mormon president because I'd hope they'd do it for a Mormon friend, a Mormon neighbor, I mean someone just like me.
BERKES: That's Shelly Astle, another stay-at-home mom and faithful Mormon in Virginia who worked as a Mitt Romney volunteer.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.