Romney bid an opportunity, challenge for Mormon church
Washington • When the world came to Salt Lake City in 2002 for the Winter Olympics, the LDS Church courted American and international journalists with snazzy videos, calendars and press packets, pitching stories on how the faith sprouted from humble roots to become one of the fastest-growing religions.
Ten years later, as the spotlight on Mitt Romney's candidacy reflects onto the Utah-based religion, the church says it plans to be more restrained using the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings but not to convert people to the Mormon fold or weigh into the politics.
"Our primary interest is simply to educate people about the church and to help them understand who we are," says Michael Purdy, the faith's media relations director.
Two of the biggest media moments for the LDS faith this century have involved Romney, a Mormon who led the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and who is now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
While many have focused on Romney and how he'll handle concerns about his faith, the flip-side of the issue is just as complex: How will the LDS Church deal with questions about Romney?
Too aggressive and it'll seem like the church is promoting Romney and taking advantage of a political race.
Too hands-off and the church misses a chance to introduce itself, or ends up looking closed-off and secretive.
Finding the right balance could prove challenging for the faith of 6 million Americans that still faces a slew of ignorant stereotypes and some historical actions that are prime for front-page stories. Church officials say they're prepared and ready for the onslaught, but the intensity level this time around will be much, much higher.
"There's no scrutiny that compares to the presidential race scrutiny," says author and LDS observer Joanna Brooks.
'Clarify and educate' • On the second floor of the grandiose Joseph Smith Memorial Building lies the nerve center of the Mormon public affairs operation. The dark wood and framed pictures are reminiscent of the interior of an LDS wardhouse.
Here, the mouthpieces of the church don gray slacks and white shirts that match their gray-and-white cubicles. There are 35 people in this press shop, plus others in Los Angeles, Washington, New York City as well as a network abroad in major cities like London, Frankfurt and Moscow.
Their charge is to monitor mentions in the news, respond to inquiries and promote the faith. Questions about Romney are met with suggestions to ask his campaign; questions about the faith in relation to Romney are answered, essentially, by walking a "very distinct line" that avoids talk about political issues and focuses on the church itself.
The faith's newsroom website now includes a series, "Getting it Right," looking at recent news media coverage, commenting on the stories and adding links to doctrine referenced by reporters.
Purdy, the church's media-relations guru, says the faith's political neutrality is "well established and well understood," and that's not going to change.
"People have seen our policies in action and there does not seem to be any confusion on the issue," Purdy said, noting that the church doesn't endorse or allow its buildings to be used for political purposes.
The church went out of its way last year to remind its leaders to stay away from donating to candidates though W. Craig Zwick, a member of the faith's First Quorum of the Seventy used his church email address to solicit money for Romney around the same time as that reminder came out.
Purdy says there has been an increasing amount of interest in the faith during the past several years.
"We have had hundreds of conversations with journalists, some initiated by them, and some initiated by us," Purdy says.
The Olympics generated interest in the church but Purdy doesn't see it as comparable to now. "The current situation is similar to some degree, but there is a higher level of interest, especially from overseas," he says. "The difference, I suppose, is that some of the recent interest is politically motivated and that creates challenges for us. We are happy to address questions about the church but do not want to weigh into the politics. Some do not want to separate the two."
And sometimes, Purdy notes, "We can't even recognize our church in the news reports that attempt to describe our beliefs and practices."
Enter the Deseret News.
Though not a part of the church's official response, the LDS-owned newspaper has taken upon itself the role of monitoring and critiquing coverage by other outlets.
Recently, a Deseret News reporter slammed a New York Post columnist for word choices in how she described the faith and how members worship.
"Even if she had just gone to the church's newsroom website, specifically prepared as a media resource, she might have avoided some glaring misrepresentations of LDS Church doctrine, policy, practice and procedure," wrote Joseph Walker, the paper's faith and religion reporter.
Romney addressed his faith during a major speech in his 2008 bid, declaring that he doesn't speak for his church and his church doesn't speak for him, and he's been reticent to talk about his beliefs specifically while on the campaign trail.
In the void between what the church can say and what it avoids and what Romney steers clear of there's also a mix of Mormon scholars whose phones are ringing daily.
Brooks, the LDS author who is often called to expand upon on the church's doctrine or actions, says Mormon culture and the church have been hard on Mormon studies scholars in the past, and some local leaders have been pointed in telling congregations not to quote from non-official LDS publications.
"There is a young but still-developing independent sector of voices" about the LDS faith, Brooks says. "People are extremely deferential inside the church to official sources."
And, officially, the church doesn't have a problem with its faithful commenting on the religion.
"We encourage our members to join the public conversation," says Purdy, the church's top spokesman. "The best way to get to know the faith is through the lives of our members. ... We all recognize that members of the church have different views on many things, including politics. Most people understand the difference between personal opinions of members and official positions of the church."
In the spotlight • Mormons have come under the microscope of American curiosity before.
Donny and Marie Osmond brought interest. Romney's father, George Romney, ran for president; Sen. Orrin Hatch tried that, too.
Harry Reid became the highest-ranking Mormon in government when he ascended to Senate majority leader. And then there was HBO's "Big Love" and the "Book of Mormon" Broadway musical.
"I don't think this is new to [the church], as much as we want to make a big deal about it," says Lane Beattie, the president of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce who served as chief Olympics officer for Utah during the 2002 Games.
During that time of intrigue about the Mormon faith, journalists routinely called Beattie to ask about whether visitors could get a drink in Utah, where to find the polygamists and odd questions about the LDS faithful.
"They wanted to know 'where were our hats, where were our beards?'" Beattie recalls. "Many people thought we were the Amish."
Romney's 2008 presidential run was unsuccessful but it went some way toward clearing up some of those misconceptions, observers say. Still, a good deal of mystery surrounds the faith whose members make up less than 2 percent of the national population, and this year's White House race could prove key to Mormons' goal of finally being accepted as mainstream.
As strategy goes, trying to educate Americans about Mormons instead of trying to convert them could be a boost for the LDS faithful, says Sarah Barringer Gordon, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who studies religion.
"It would bother me if someone took a political advantage and tried to turn it into an spiritual advantage," she says. "I think most missionaries would find that inappropriate as well."
Gordon says that the increased attention on the church "is an opportunity, but the answers are going to be complicated."
Some facets aren't easy to explain, such as the church's polygamist past or its ban on blacks holding the faith's priesthood until 1978. And some Mormon members grew up hearing church doctrine different from the officially sanctioned version.
Catholic John F. Kennedy also faced misunderstandings in his 1960 bid for president, eventually winning the White House and breaking the so-called stained glass ceiling. His case, though, was much different.
"The truth is that people understood who Catholics are a lot better then," Gordon says. "It was the single largest denomination [in America]. You cannot say that about Mormons."
David Campbell, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and a Mormon, agrees that any analogy between Kennedy and Catholics and Romney and Mormons breaks down fairly quickly.
"I don't think the Catholic hierarchy in 1960 had to worry about introducing Catholicism to Americans," Campbell said.
The Mormon faith could benefit from the Romney campaign by engaging in more conversations about the religion, Campbell notes, but it also could be harmful for the church as its most prominent member is a politician and "politics is a nasty business."
"It's a sticky wicket for the LDS Church," Campbell says. "Thus far, to be fair, I think the church has handled it pretty well."
As Michael Otterson, the head of the church's public affairs arm, wrote in the Washington Post's On Faith blog last year, the more exposure, the better.
"Like any major faith, the church will always have its critics, and it's probable that the larger we get the more of those critics there will be," Otterson wrote. "Ultimately, it is the church's own people all of them, not just the more prominent who will play a crucial role in increasing understanding among the public as a whole."