Romney's religion 'not a litmus test' say Mormons

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks during a...

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event at the Exhibit Edge building in Chantilly, Virginia on May 2, 2012. (REUTERS/Benjamin Myers)

Bryn Weese, Senior Washington Correspondent

, Last Updated: 5:04 PM ET

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The first time a Mormon ran for president nearly 170 years ago, he was assassinated.

Now Mitt Romney, a Mormon, has clinched the Republican nomination and is currently running neck-and-neck with President Barack Obama.

And whereas the church's founder, Joseph Smith, was gunned down by an angry mob months after announcing his intentions to run as a third-party candidate in 1844, Romney might just win.

So has the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which once practised polygamy and faced persecution and stigma, finally entered the mainstream?

"It's certainly a significant moment historically, both for Mormons and for America at large. America has never had a presidential candidate from a distinctly minority religion," said Joanna Brooks, a Mormon and senior correspondent for the webzine religiondispatches.org. "At the same time, it's important not to overstate what the election means to Mormons.

"We have not faced, in the 20th century, systemic exclusion as people of colour have, or LGBT people have."

David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, agrees that Romney's candidacy is a "significant milestone" for Mormonism, but said it's unlikely one election cycle will completely change American's perception of the church.

"A presidential campaign has the potential to open the door for Mormons and non-Mormons to have conversations about the faith ... but that will be a process that doesn't happen overnight," he said.

Earlier this year, the PEW Research Center conducted an in-depth survey of the Mormon faith in America. What it found among followers was 46% feel there is still "a lot" of discrimination towards them, and for nearly one-in-four non-Mormons, the first word they think of when asked about the church is "cult."

The reservations many Americans still have about Mormonism helps to explain why Romney won't talk about his faith, and why the church itself is reluctant to discuss what it means to have one of their own running for the White House.

No spokesman would comment on the race, and even its website reads: "The church's mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians," and no Mormon church -- not even in the religion's heartland of Utah -- are allowed to be used as polling stations during elections.

Senator Jason Chaffertz, one of 15 Mormons currently serving in Congress, recently told CNN that, while he feels a sense of pride in Romney's candidacy as a Mormon, there's more to a president than his choice of church.

"I don't want anybody to vote for Mitt Romney because he's Mormon, and I don't want anybody to vote against Mitt Romney because he's Mormon. I think we need to elect good, honest, decent people," Chaffertz said. A candidate's religion "should not be a litmus test."

That won't stop the people talking about it, however - for Obama or Romney.

Indeed, Obama's past as a member of Jeremiah Wright's controversial Black Liberation theology church in Chicago became an issue in the 2008 Democrat primary, including his comment that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were America's chickens coming home to roost. And attack ads featuring the same are due to return.

But if the going does get tough for Mormonism on the campaign trail, Brooks at least sees the potential of a silver lining.

"Being ridiculed and made fun of is really one of the things all minorities go through on their way to greater understanding and acceptance. It's an ugly rite of passage," she said. "So Mormons are going to take their lumps, as every minority does.

"A presidential campaign is a contact sport, after all."

bryn.weese@sunmedia.ca


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