High-profile Mormons in media, politics advance understanding of church

The Washington Post/February 7, 2011

When Mitt Romney ran for president three years ago, calls from reporters came pouring into the public affairs office at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The reporters' questions made it clear that they didn't know much about Romney's faith, church officials said.

As a second Mormon candidate appears likely to join Romney on the list of Republicans seeking to challenge President Obama in 2012, the calls are flooding in again. This time, the questions indicate a better understanding of the religion, said Michael Otterson, a spokesman for the church.

"I think back in 2007, a lot of the approach to our church was simple curiosity. They knew nothing at all about us," said Otterson. "Now, we're getting to a point where people are looking at us more seriously."

The possibility that Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to China and a Mormon, might run for president has again drawn attention to a religion that has gained a higher profile in recent years, including in the political sphere.

The church was instrumental in the 2008 passage of Proposition 8, the voter initiative that banned gay marriage in California. Glenn Beck, a Mormon convert, has become a leading media voice among conservatives and promoted some of the religion's tenets in the tea party movement.

The ideological diversity of the community is on display in Sen. Harry M. Reid, a Democrat from Nevada; Huntsman, a centrist from Utah; and Romney, a conservative and former governor of Massachusetts. Huntsman and Romney are expected to run for president.

To many Mormons, these all are signs that the community has finally "arrived," as Otterson put it. But researchers say there remains a deep mistrust of Mormons and that little has changed in public opinion to suggest that voters will be more open this year than they were in 2007.

"I would like to say that [perceptions of Mormonism have improved], but I have no reason to think that," said David Campbell, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of "American Grace," a book on religion in America. "Mormons rank really low, just above Muslims. Mormons have a lot of ground to make up to be thought of on par with even evangelicals."

There are 6 million Mormons in the United States, about equal to the number of Jews. Members of the church consider themselves to be Christian, but many Americans view them as fringe. The suspicion is especially sharp among evangelical Christians, who are an important part of the Republican base and will wield enormous influence during the primary.

In a 2007 Washington Post poll, 22 percent of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate if the person was a Mormon - a greater proportion than for a woman or African American candidate. A slim majority, 53 percent, of respondents in a 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life had a favorable view of the religion. About 43 percent had a favorable view of Muslims; 60 percent viewed evangelical Christians favorably, and 76 percent viewed Jews and Catholics favorably.

Mormon Church officials have been eager to turn around the perceptions. At the same time, they have tried to distance themselves from the Republican Party, even though they acknowledge that Mormons tend to be conservative and some of the most high-profile Mormons are Republicans.

Among the most well known is Beck, who through his Fox television show helped give rise to the tea party movement. Beck has peppered his remarks over the years with comments influenced by the tenets of his faith, including the view that the Constitution is a divinely inspired document.

Members of the tea party also venerate the Constitution using language that some scholars of Mormon theology say is strikingly similar. But the tea party's backers say it is simply a coincidence.

"Do Mormons think that the Founding Fathers were inspired? Yes, they do. Do they think the Constitution was inspired? Yes, they do," said David Kirkham, an organizer with the Utah Tea Party and a Mormon. "Does the tea party think the same thing? There is a thread that goes through the tea party like that, but I don't think they're by any means connected."

Kirkham said it's unlikely the state's tea party, which has many Mormons, would support either Romney or Huntsman, because they would be viewed as too liberal on fiscal issues.

That view, said Notre Dame's Campbell, will probably be a greater challenge for the candidates than religion.

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