BOSTON — Mitt Romney's run for president in 2012 has blazed a new path for Mormons, making him the first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to fight his way to the top of a major-party ticket and into the hearts of millions of Americans on the biggest of political stages.
When he launched his bid 17 months ago on a New Hampshire farm, some still questioned whether his religion would be a unique hurdle that could stunt his political rise.
After all, more than a century and a half ago, LDS church leaders flirted with severing geographic, cultural and legal ties with the United States, said Ben Crosby, an Iowa State University professor.
"During its early years, the church was an exercise in defiant theocracy — a theocracy that made repeated attempts to establish a comprehensive, highly centralized communitarian economy," Mr. Crosby said. "How things have changed. So Mormonism's success also ironically underscores the power of American hegemony. Mitt Romney is a stark embodiment of this history."
"So it's hard to overstate the historical significance of a Romney victory," he said. "He is, after all, a descendent of these very pioneers. And Latter-day Saints, especially those who have pioneer ancestry, live with a very intimate and vital sense of this history. It's not just the story of their church; it's the story of their family. So they, if no one else, will have a deep sense of the significance of this moment."
Others say a good chunk of Mr. Romney's success derives from the anti-Obama sentiment that runs rampant within conservative ranks — not necessarily shrinking levels of skepticism about Mormonism.
"If he wins, it will surely ease stereotypes," said John G. Geer, chairman of Vanderbilt University's political science department. "If he loses, not clear. Romney's support in the South reflects people's unhappiness with Obama, not a like of Romney. Might there be a rebound against Mormons if he loses? Maybe. But the absence of bias does not mean it has ended, it is just swamped by dislike of the president."
Many Evangelicals, fundamentalists and other traditional-leaning Christians, who constitute a powerful voting bloc especially within the Republican Party, strongly deny that the church is a Christian body — claiming it either denies or unrecognizably redefines such Christian doctrines as the Trinity, original sin and atonement.
Indeed, exit polls from the GOP primary showed that evangelical Christians generally supported someone else — usually former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia — when given the chance.
Mr. Romney steered clear of mentioning his religion when he launched his campaign and has not worn his religion on his sleeve. He rarely — if ever — used the word "Mormon" — despite it being such an integral part of his life.
Prodded on the subject, Mr. Romney has chosen to talk in sweeping terms about the role his "faith" plays in his life and charitable giving. For instance, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, also a Mormon, said that Mr. Romney is not the face of the church and "sullied" the religion, Mr. Romney refused to be pulled into a firefight over his beliefs.
"Romney has shown that one's religion can remain essentially private," Mr. Crosby said. "In spite of the many attempts to draw him out on religion, Romney has remained quite guarded. He has both implicitly and explicitly asserted his right to avoid it as a campaign topic."
Asked what it would mean for the church should Mr. Romney win the presidency, LDS Church spokesman Michael Purdy said the more attention the religion is given, the better.
"We are always happy to talk about our beliefs and how they are evidenced in the lives of more than 14 million Church members worldwide, but are very careful not to get involved in the politics," he said. "The more these conversations happen, the more opportunity there is to dispel misperceptions and that is beneficial for everyone."
Mr. Purdy said the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the site of the church's headquarters, which Mr. Romney is credited with saving, is one example of another high-profile event that shed a light on Mormonism.
"However, with six million members in America and 14 million members worldwide, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now the fourth largest Christian faith in the United States, and it continues to grow," he said. "This means more Mormons in business, government, education, the arts, entertainment and other places in public life. And, as people get to know Latter-day Saints they get a clearer, fuller, and more accurate picture of our faith."
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