Mormons express pride over Romney

Posted: August 30, 2012

TAMPA - An old Mormon folk tale envisions a day when the U.S. Constitution "will hang by a thread," only to be saved by Mormons.

Is that tale on the verge of coming true?

Having secured the Republican nomination for president, Mitt Romney will address the nation Thursday from the GOP convention as the first Mormon on a major-party ticket in U.S. history.

While that's a challenge for his campaign - Mormons are seen as a cult by segments of the Republican base, and 18 percent of Americans say they wouldn't vote for a Mormon - it has elicited pride among Republicans in the western state where the religion is centered.

"He is beyond the gold standard in Utah," exulted Alan Dayton, a Republican lobbyist and former mayor of Salt Lake County.

Dayton, here for the convention, said Romney's nomination "just shows we're mainstream people. We don't ride around in buggies. We don't have bonnets. We're just regular, everyday Americans."

Romney's great-great-grandfather Parley Pratt was one of the founding apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Romney has been a church leader and missionary. And now, he is one of the best-known Mormons in the world, hoping to do what President John F. Kennedy did for Roman Catholics and President Obama did for African Americans.

Mormons interviewed at the Republican National Convention here this week said they believe his prominence is pushing back against misconceptions about the religion, fueled in part by the Tony Award-winning Book of Mormon and the HBO series about polygamy, Big Love.

"Many Latter-day Saints see this as a moment of destiny, a moment of fulfillment for them," said sociologist Rick Phillips of the University of North Florida, coauthor of Could I Vote for a Mormon President?

Phillips said that while the tale of a Mormon's saving the Constitution is just folklore, Mormons "are really excited about what this portends."

Utah's delegates - who dubbed Romney, a Michigan native and former Massachusetts governor, their state's "favorite adopted son" when they cast their votes for him Tuesday in the convention hall - said they were proud of Romney for two reasons: His work leading the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, and his faith.

"It's very clearly good for our faith for people to know us and know we're not weird," said one of the delegates, Mark Shurtleff, Utah's attorney general.

Shurtleff is no stranger to others' assumptions about Mormons. As part of an attorneys general organization, he once led a prayer at a meeting - to the shock of his compatriots.

"They said, 'Wow, you pray to God just like we do,' " he remembered.

Shurtleff, for one, hopes Romney will mention his faith in Thursday night's acceptance speech. He could talk about how he tithes 10 percent of his income, and how he has dedicated much of his life to Mormon-inspired good works.

But there's also a wariness. Mormons are mindful of how they are perceived. Some evangelical Christian leaders provided them with reminders of this during the GOP primaries by branding the religion a cult.

The sources of the animosity, Phillips said, are polygamy, now banned in the Mormon Church although practiced in small splinter denominations, and "stark theoretical differences" with mainstream Christianity. Mormons believe in Jesus, but they don't believe in the Trinity - in the traditional sense. Elements of their theology, including that God lives near a giant star named Kolob, have been fodder for derision.

"The only difference between ours and all the [other religions] is time," said Dayton. "People have been talking about the golden calf and splitting the Red Sea for so long, it sounds normal."

Romney does not speak as frankly. Though he served in a position that is the equivalent of a bishop, he rarely touches on his experience.

"He's handled [his faith] by not talking about it," Phillips said, though "it's a huge, essential core of who he is. . . . The reason people say, 'Hey, we really don't know this guy,' is because there's this huge facet of his person that hasn't been revealed."

Romney recently let himself be photographed walking into church, and a Mormon is to deliver the invocation before his speech Thursday.

"There are so many people asking questions, I think, politically, he needs to touch on it a little bit," Dayton said.

Romney's wife, Ann, casually mentioned their faith in remarks Sunday. The Salt Lake Tribune called it a "Mormon moment," though it drew little notice.

And former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and a hero to evangelicals, told the convention Wednesday night: "I care far less about where Mitt Romney takes his family to church than about where he takes this country."

Tuesday, a convention speaker delivered a fiery four-minute diatribe against Obama that thrilled conservative listeners. She was Mia Love, the 37-year-old mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah - a black Mormon, the daughter of Haitian immigrants.

Promptly dubbed a rising star, Love raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for her congressional campaign in the hours after her speech while juggling radio interviews.

Mormons are no strangers to politics. Joseph Smith Jr., the founding prophet of the church, ran for president in the 19th century, as did Romney's father, Michigan Gov. George W. Romney, in the 20th. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) is a Mormon.

That political tradition can be traced in part, Phillips said, to Mormons' concept of America as a chosen land: "They see themselves as stewards of the Constitution."

While Mormons are generally Republicans, the church does not dictate their views, according to Phillips.

"I can't imagine the church calling Mitt Romney up and saying, veto this, sign that," the scholar said. "It's not going to happen."

Shurtleff has held elective office for more than a decade and has prosecuted polygamists in fringe Mormon sects. He said the church had never pressured him on any issue.

Of Romney, he said: "He'll govern as a conservative Republican president, not as a Mormon president."


Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 or mkatz@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.philly.com/christiechronicles

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