- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

ST. GEORGE, Utah.

You don’t have to be a Mormon to worry about old-wives jokes, but if you live in Utah, the heartburn can be more intense.

Particularly if you’re a Republican, as Mormons invariably are. One of the most attractive of the 2008 presidential wannabes is Mitt Romney, the bold, smart governor of Massachusetts with the looks of a movie star, and a lot of the folks in these parts — some, anyway — can’t decide whether to cheer or groan.

“Some of my neighbors make a point of going out to dinner on Sunday nights,” says one St. George wife, “just so no one will suspect them of watching ‘Big Love.’ ”

St. George and this southernmost corner of Utah is some of the fastest-growing territory in America. It’s Utah’s Deep South, where tracts of new million-dollar homes stretch into the desert. There’s Dixie State College, the Dixie National Forest and even a barbecue joint or two. Nothing of the spectacularly beautiful landscape reminds anyone of Virginia, Alabama or the Ark-La-Tex, but the city was named for Philip St. George Cooke, a “gentile” friend of Brigham Young who was a Virginian who remained loyal to the Union and commanded a cavalry division at Gaines Mill, even though his son was a Confederate brigadier and Jeb Stuart was his son-in-law. (Cooke family reunions were interesting well into the 20th century.)

Mitt Romney is widely admired hereabouts not only for his Mormon faith but for his orthodox views on taxes, the war in Iraq, same-sex “marriage” and nearly all the other items in the catechism of modern conservatism. But it’s his religion — what the National Review has called “Mormonism’s doctrinal oddities” — that has so far defined Mr. Romney, and that makes his fellow Mormons wince. He intensifies Mormon pain with jocular references to his faith. Since polygamy is what most people think when they hear the word “Mormon,” that’s mostly what Mr. Romney jokes about. He tells audiences that “I believe marriage is a union of a man and a woman … and a woman, and a woman.” Chuckles in the Carolinas and tittering in Tennessee become merely sighs and sobs in Salt Lake City — and in St. George.

“Collecting wives is all anybody thinks they know about our church,” says a young woman waiting in line to pay for a beef roast at an Albertson’s supermarket off Interstate 15 in St. George. “You can’t be a Mormon in the 21st century if you’re a practicing polygamist. I don’t know whether I could bear the underwear jokes and take the theological abuse a Mormon president would bring.”

Underwear jokes? Mormons wear certain intimate apparel, correctly called “temple garments,” under their outer clothes as spiritual “shield and protection” against the powers of evil. These temple garments are marked with symbols on breast, navel and knee, the final one to commemorate the belief that on the last day “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ.”

“Mormonism’s doctrinal oddities,” like the doctrines of all religious faiths, have their own interior logic, believable to outsiders or not, but in the steam and noise of a presidential campaign, few are likely to take time to listen to explanations. (You could ask Jimmy Carter about lust in his heart.) Mr. Romney is trying to figure out how to deal with the oddities in places far from Utah. The dilemma is how to deal with them in the real South, where evangelical resistance to cults is strongest and a Mormon is not much more familiar than a Muslim and where the struggle for the Republican nomination is won or lost. Mr. Romney can take some encouragement, but not much, in the fact that he was elected governor in the bluest of the blue states. Southern Evangelicals, Baptists mostly, but including a lot of Methodists, Presbyterians and Pentecostals, look not to vague notions that Mormons are somehow different, but to actual religious doctrine. This is all but impenetrable to the pundits and correspondents, skeptics and atheists for the most part, who think they understand the body politic.

Too bad, really. If Mitt Romney were a Presbyterian or an Episcopalian, he might slay dragons (even a certain dragon lady), in St. George and everywhere else.

Pruden on Politics runs on Tuesdays and Fridays.

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