Most Utahns see Romney's bid as a blessing for Mormonism
Mormons across the nation held their missionary-minded breath when Mitt Romney became the Republican presidential nominee, unsure about whether all the accompanying media attention would be good or bad for their proselytizing church.
Now, it seems, these anxious Latter-day Saints can exhale. Most people particularly Utahns believe that, on balance, Romney's run for the highest office in the land has benefited the faith.
A Salt Lake Tribune poll conducted this week by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research showed that 61 percent of Utah's likely voters say Romney's candidacy has had a positive effect on "how people view the LDS Church."
That view holds true for a majority of Utahns in nearly every category men (60 percent), women (61 percent), Republicans (78 percent), independents (53 percent), Mormons (62 percent) and non-Mormons (59 percent).
Only Democrats failed to see the "Mormon moment" as a clear plus for the church. The bulk of them (39 percent) say it had no effect, compared with 30 percent positive and 17 percent negative.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
There's no one right answer, of course, given the unprecedented amount of interest in Mormonism during the past year. We've seen glowing stories about Romney's telegenic family, his volunteer service as a missionary and his faith's efforts to feed the poor.
There have also been reports of the church's troubled racial history it did not extend its all-male priesthood to blacks until 1978 its lack of transparency about its financial holdings and its views of women's roles after Ann Romney's defense of stay-at-home moms.
For his part, Salt Lake City poll respondent Howard Rudy was effusive about his fellow Mormon's role in elevating public opinion about the religion.
Romney's "a brilliant guy and a great guy, who has a lot of integrity," the 88-year-old retired businessman said. "He's loyal to his church and pays his tithing. He's made a lot of money and shared it. He's very active and does a lot of good."
Daniel Weaver, who belongs to Salt Lake City's First Congregational Church, believes Romney's visibility has helped bring Mormonism into the mainstream.
"I don't believe people look at [the LDS Church] as if it's a cult," said Weaver, who recently retired as a crime-scene technician for the Salt Lake City Police Department. "He's 'normalized' it like Catholicism."
Others thought Romney's campaign had little impact on the image of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"There was a lot of misinformation on the Mormon church throughout the country when Romney first ran in 2008, all kinds of stuff about him not being a Christian," said Dave Welch, of West Bountiful. "But that's just not an issue anymore. Now we are looking at the candidates for what they can do for the country."
To Darius Gray, former president of the Genesis Group, a social organization for black Mormons, Romney's candidacy has been a "mixed bag."
"It has brought visibility to the LDS Church that it previously had not had," said Gray, who was not among those polled. "In the process of examination by the international and national media, our church has fared well overall."
On the other hand, Gray said, some of the Romney team's "tactics and misstatements" about President Barack Obama and his policies "reflect negatively not only upon the Romney campaign, but, because of his membership in the faith, also upon the church."
Outside Utah • Out-of-state observers were largely upbeat about the campaign's impact on Mormonism's image, especially in boosting awareness about its teachings and practices.
"Sure, there is a hard core of anti-Mormons on both the left and the right whose views will not change. But, for the many Americans who had only a shadowy idea of what Mormons are like and what we believe, his candidacy has been eye-opening," said Lowell Brown, an LDS attorney in California who has written about Romney since 2005 at Article VI blog. "Certainly not every Mormon is like Mitt Romney, and not every Mormon family is like his far from it.Â But what he and his family aspire to be is admirable to most people, and, more importantly, they are not weird."
The campaign has served to dispel stereotypes, said John Schroeder, Brown's fellow Article VI blogger and a Presbyterian elder.
Americans "have discovered that the average modern Mormon is not a guy in a cutaway coat with mutton-chop sideburns surrounded by a lot of wives and even more kids," Schroeder wrote in an email. "They have learned that, by and large, the average Mormon is pretty much the same person they are."
This political season hasn't, however, bridged "the theological gaps between Mormonism and other Christian expressions," he said, "nor, frankly, should it have presidential campaigns are not theological battlegrounds."
Romney's high profile has spawned more interfaith conversations and more accurate reporting on the church, LDS writer Jana Riess said from the battleground state of Ohio.
"Non-Mormons in Cincinnati sometimes seem surprised to learn that there are Mormons right here in our city (and have been since the 19th century)," Riess wrote in an email. "They ask where our buildings are and want to know why they haven't heard of us before. Mormons have been featured more prominently (and I would say more positively) in the news here in Ohio than I have seen in the past."
A side benefit, she said, is that outsiders have discovered Mormonism is not monolithic.
"It was politically ugly to have Mitt Romney and fellow Mormon Harry Reid [a Democrat] throwing accusations at each other in the campaign, but in the long run I think it sends a good message to America," said Riess, on record as an Obama backer. "People can be orthodox, active Latter-day Saints and have very different views on politics."
After the voting • Kristine Haglund, editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, sees such publicity as helping Mormonism as it grows in the 21st century.
"The fact that diversity, in forms like 'Mormons for Obama,' Mormons marching in pride parades and a liberal feminist Mormon appearing on the 'Daily Show' has, on the whole, been positive for the church's image," Haglund said, "and may make it a little easier for those used to central control and monolithic messaging to allow that adaptation to move forward."
The longer term benefit for the LDS Church may be the news media's increased interest, said David Campbell, an LDS political scientist at the University of Notre Dame.
"A lot of reporters have had a lot of conversations with Mormons and learned a lot about Mormonism that they would not otherwise have learned," Campbell said. "I suspect we will see a lot more coverage going forward and, for the most part, it will be positive."
Joanna Brooks, a Mormon writer and scholar in San Diego, isn't sure Romney's campaign has had any effect at all.
In the past few months, Brooks has given lectures across the country and still finds an astonishing amount of misinformation about Romney's church. She routinely asks audience members basic questions about how many Mormons there are and whether they celebrate Easter. Few know.
"Romney's reluctance to talk about his faith has fostered disinterest in his listeners," Brooks said. "We are not moving the needle any on public interest in Mormonism."
That may change after Election Day if there's a President Romney.