A mormon church official and a public relations executive shuttled recently from the Fox News Washington bureau to the Washington Post to the online political digest the Hotline. The two were engaging in a little pre-emptive rearguard action, gearing up for the impending Republican presidential campaign of Massachusetts Governor (Willard) Mitt Romney, 59, whose family has long been part of the church's élite.
Like other minorities--ethnic or religious--Mormons are proud of those among them who make it big. When Steve Young, a descendant of church leader Brigham Young and a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, was taking snaps on Monday Night Football in the 1990s, his fellow Mormons took to calling Family Home Evening, their weekly togetherness meeting, Family Home Halftime instead.
But church officials are wary of the impact Romney's candidacy could have on them--and on the portrayal of their faith. Yes, his campaign will bring attention and credibility to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), as the Mormons are formally known, and give them a chance to demystify their theology and customs. But church officials also calculate that Romney's bid to succeed George W. Bush could remind some mainstream Christians just how different Mormonism is from their faith and perhaps expose their flock to more of the sort of discrimination that drove their founders west by handcart and covered wagon into the Great Salt Lake Valley.
Although Mormons are known for family centeredness, hard work and clean living, many Americans remain suspicious of them, maybe because so many aspects of their faith remain mysterious. A poll conducted in June by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg found that 35% of registered voters said they would not consider voting for a Mormon for President. Only Islam would be a more damaging faith for a candidate, the poll found. That's why Michael Otterson, a Mormon convert who is now the church's director of media relations, was calling on political reporters when he visited Washington from Utah in October. He wants them to know that in its 176-year history, the church has never endorsed a presidential candidate and that much of the folklore surrounding its beliefs just isn't true. "The message in a nutshell is, Remember that we're politically neutral as an institution," he says. "The church is about preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Anything else is a distraction." Otterson says he has a "no dumb questions" policy and urges journalists to call his cell phone, day or night.
The church used a similar strategy successfully when Romney, who became wealthy building a venture-capital firm in Boston, was brought in as president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee when it needed to rescue the 2002 Winter Olympics from a bribery scandal. Some critics wondered if the games would become the "Molympics," and Otterson says he met with a stream of sports reporters to try to "put some of the myths to rest--polygamy being the most enduring."