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Gary Younge

Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, attend Sunday
Mitt Romney embraces his Mormonism in public after years of discretion

Philip Barlow does not recognise the descriptions of Mitt Romney, as a cold, stiff CEO. As Romney's church counsellor when the Republican presidential hopeful was a bishop in the Mormon church in Boston, Barlow saw him administer to the emotional and practical needs of all his flock.

"It forces you to become intimately involved in the lives of people of all economic and racial backgrounds," he explains. "People would come to him with problems: a son who's strayed from the faith, a daughter with a drug problem, marriage difficulties. I was there with him in his home, every Saturday, talking about how he would handle these problems. In his personal life he's not stiff at all."

So why, given such low favourability ratings and a reputation for being out of touch, doesn't Romney draw on that experience to show his capacity for empathy?

The gamble, explains Barlow, the Arrington chair of Mormon history and culture at the Utah State University in Logan, may be too great. "It risks inviting more scrutiny of Mormonism. The political upside is it humanises the candidate. The political downside is it Mormonises the candidate."

Now, Romney and his campaign team have decided that the risk is worth taking. This week, as Republicans gather in Tampa, Florida, to formally nominate Romney as their candidate for the White House, he will publicly embrace his religion. A Mormon bishop will perform the opening invocation on Thursday, the day of Romney's speech, and campaign officials have hinted that he will talk openly about his Mormonism.

In a recent Washington Post column Michael Gerson argued that given Romney's performance so far, the downsides aren't that great. "Take away Romney's religion and you are left with Harvard, Bain and various corporate boardrooms," he wrote.

"Mormonism has been one of the main stages for his leadership, as well as the main setting where he has displayed humanity. … Mormonism is the reason for Romney's rectitude, the explanation for his wholesomeness, the key to understanding his persona. Without it, he would merely be a stiff, able management consultant. Romney's reticence on religion leaves a large personal and biographical gap."

The emergence of a viable Mormon candidate for the presidency has posed significant challenges both for the candidate and the Mormon community, the overwhelming majority of whom are members of the Church of Latter-day Saints.

Mormons still very much see themselves as outsiders. A Pew poll in January revealed that almost half believe they face a lot of discrimination – in fact they perceive themselves to be more discriminated against than black Americans – and more than two-thirds think their fellow countrymen do not regard Mormonism as part of mainstream America.

That sense of alienation is well founded. Barely half of Americans believe Mormonism is a Christian religion, and in an open-ended question posed in a poll last November the word most frequently used to describe Mormonism was a "cult".

A poll in 2007 revealed that people were less likely to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate than a candidate who was female, black, twice divorced or a smoker. Only Muslims and atheists fare worse.

Most Americans now know Romney is Mormon. Indeed they are more comfortable with his faith than they are with Obama's (though that seems to be because a large percentage still believe he is a Muslim).

But the group that is least comfortable with his religion – white evangelical Christians – also happens to be a crucial part of the Republican base. When he ran in 2008 opponents in South Carolina someone sent fake Mormon holiday cards claiming they were from him and an email from an unknown source with the subject line "Mitt Romney has a family secret he doesn't want you to know" that encouraged recipients to trust their "dark suspicions" about Mormonism.

 Three-year-old Dean Call holds a sign for Romney at a rally in Columbia, South Carolina, in January. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters
Three-year-old Dean Call holds a sign for Romney at a rally in Columbia, South Carolina, in January. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

"It's like quicksand for him," explains one long time observer. "He can't just go there a little bit. Put your foot in and you're sucked in to the whole thing. I think most Mormons understand why he keeps a distance from the church."

It is on this fragile and besieged sense of Mormon identity that Romney's candidacy rests as both a blessing and a burden. America is poised to pit its first black president against its first Mormon contender. They're calling it the Mormon Moment. But it doesn't seem to be a moment of unqualified joy for Mormons.

"There is a sense of ambivalence in the community," explains Paul Reeve, associate professor of history at the university of Utah. "It signals to some Mormons that we might no longer be considered a pariah faith but instead might finally be arriving. A Mormon candidacy gives a sense of acceptance and legitimacy in mainstream American life. But there is also concern about the level of scrutiny it has brought to their faith. Every wart from Mormon history is being examined so closely it worries them."

The media, they say, tend to concentrate on polygamy – which the church renounced in 1890 and only 2% of Mormons now endorse – and "magic underwear" – symbolically significant temple garments worn by many church members after they've taken part in an endowment ceremony. More than a third of Mormons think news coverage of their religion is unfair and more than half that they are badly portrayed in films and television.

"Things that are sacred to us become this awful caricature," says Neylan McBaine, founder of the Mormon Women's Project. "The church membership is really feeling the weight of the Romney candidacy."

If there is excitement in the Mormon community at Romney's candidacy it certainly seems muted. A recent poll found that 79% of Mormons in Utah, including more than half of Democrats and almost two-thirds of independents, felt his candidacy was "a good thing" for the Mormon church.

But driving around Utah – where Mormons comprise more than half the population – for a few days I saw only a handful Romney bumper stickers and not a single poster. By this time four years ago black America was awash with t-shirts casting Obama alongside Martin Luther King and Malcolm X – essentially iconising a living candidate – and psychedelic posters proclaiming hope and change. Nevertheless, Barlow believes that while the ambivalence is real, "the dominant side of that equation is the pride. Mormons are not by and large a demonstrative people so it's a quiet pride."

Every religion has its story. A narrative through which believers make sense of their faith. From the loaves and fishes to the creation story, religion is filled with tales of the fantastic. Every Sunday, Catholics are supposed to drink the blood and eat the flesh of Christ.

Christians and Jews are taught that Moses parted the Red Sea and led the Israelites to the promised land. Hindus have Hanuman, the monkey god who carried an entire mountain covered with the sanjivini herb to save the life of Lakshmana. Some take them literally; for others they are metaphors. If they weren't fantastical, there would be precious little to put your faith in.

Mormonism is no different. The religion started with Joseph Smith, a man in western New York who had many visions. During the 1820s he said an angel visited him and lead him to a buried book of golden plates inscribed with a Christian history of ancient American civilizations.

It was one visit among many; he also claimed that the angels of Peter, James, John and John the Baptist visited him and endowed him with a range of priesthood authorities. Claiming that by the "by the gift and power of God" he translated the 500 pages in two months he published the Book of Mormon, organised the Church of Christ and was hailed as a prophet. The president of the church is still considered a prophet and God's spokesman to the world.

Smith's small but growing band of followers were chased out of New York and settled in Kirtland, Ohio, from which they were expelled, pushing them south and west to Jackson County, Missouri. Attempts to lay down roots there were scuppered when the governor issued a "Mormon extermination order" insisting they must "be treated as enemies".

They went north to Illinois where after a few years Smith and his brother were slaughtered by a mob. Brigham Young then took over and lead them westward where they settled in what was then Mexican land and would later become the state of Utah.

 Mormon prophet Joseph Smith
Mormon prophet Joseph Smith

"Even though more than a century has passed and we don't face anything like that level of persecution now there's a live nerve ending in the Mormon consciousness that's informed by that history," explains Barlow, "that does make us more sensitive to being misrepresented."

Mormons were not always considered conservative. The church drew significant fire for its opposition to slavery although it went on to exclude people of African descent from both the priesthood and participation in temple ceremonies until 1978. "Through the 19th century there was an attempt to insulate themselves from capitalism through communalism," says Reeve.

In the post-war era the church comprised a significant portion of Democrats. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson won Utah; in 1960 Kennedy got 45%. But with the late '60s came the sexual revolution: women's rights, abortion, gay liberation and divorce. With little doctrinal room for manoeuvre on these social issues Mormons increasingly identified with the Republican Party.

In the last five elections no Democratic candidate has broken 35% in Utah. "Mormons have their idiosyncratic dimensions that are particular to the faith but they are all part of a piece of that broader American story," says Barlow.

Today there are 14 million Mormons worldwide, less than half of whom live in the US. Comprising just 2% of the US population they are no monolithic group. One in 7 is not white; slightly more than that are Democrats or lean that way; a quarter do not live in the west; and one in 10 is divorced or separated. Still, broadly speaking, they are far more likely to be conservative, educated and white than the country as a whole and more than half live in just three states: Utah, California and Idaho.

For a group who feel excluded from the mainstream they have fared remarkably well in most sphere's of American life. Democratic senate majority leader, Harry Reid, is Mormon as is the author of the Twilight vampire series, Stephanie Meyer, and former Fox News anchor, Glenn Beck, the CEO of Jet Blue Airways, David Neeleman and the Marriott family that owns the hotel chain. (Romney is named after the Marriott founder, John Willard Marriott. Romney's first name is Willard. Mitt is his second.)

Indeed, Romney is not the first Mormon to run for president. He's not even the first in his family – his father George, the former governor of Michigan, ran in 1968 – or the only one this year – John Huntsman, who bowed out early, is also Mormon.

Greg Smith, a senior researcher for Pew forum on religious and public life, says the group Mormons most resemble in their feelings and attitudes are American Muslims. "Both groups feel they are discriminated against and not fully accepted by mainstream society. But both groups are still doing quite well and are happy with their lives and generally optimistic about the future."

In Armitstead Maupin's Maybe the Moon the dwarf protagonist, Cady Roth, explains her conciliatory impulses thus:

"When you're my size and not being tormented by elevator buttons, water fountains and ATMs, you spend your life accommodating the sensibilities of 'normal people'. You learn to bury your own feelings and honour theirs in the hope that they'll meet you halfway. It becomes your job, and yours alone, to explain, to ignore, to forgive – over and over again. There's no way you can get around this. You do it if you want to have a life and not spend it being corroded by your own anger. You do it if you want to belong to the human race."

Every minority candidate, it seems, must at some point during their campaign allay the fears of the majority if they want to be part of the electoral race. Obama did it in Pennsylvania as he sought to quell fears about his pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

In 1960 John F Kennedy addressed his Catholicism in a now famous speech in Houston. "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," he said. "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me."

Back in 2007 Romney claimed he wanted to give a speech on his faith but was dissuaded from doing so by his team. "The political advisers tell me: 'No, no, no, it's not a good idea. It draws too much attention to that issue alone.' "

 The Mormon Temple is the centerpiece of Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Photograph: Douglas C. Pizac/AP
The Mormon Temple is the centerpiece of Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Photograph: Douglas C. Pizac/AP

But shortly before the primaries four years ago he felt he had little choice. Having once been a frontrunner in Iowa back then he was losing ground to the lay preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Given that more than half of Iowa caucus-goers in 2008 described themselves as born-again or evangelical the Romney campaign felt they had no option but to address it.

Shortly before Christmas in 2007 Romney spoke at the George HW Bush library in College Station, Texas. The speech was revealing on many fronts. Like Kennedy almost 50 years earlier he emphasised that if elected he would be representing America not his church.

"Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin," he said.

He also acknowledged and accepted his vulnerability on the issue. "Some believe such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy," he said. "If they are right so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people."

But then came a moment when Romney had to say something that Kennedy would never have had to say (although Obama, for different reasons has also had to stress): that he considers himself a Christian. "I believe that Jesus in the son of God and the saviour of mankind," he said.

And while Kennedy saw American secularism as the bridge between his minority faith and politics, Romney argued that secularism was becoming a barrier between all faiths and politics, first caricaturing and then condemning those who advocate a strict separation between church and state.

"They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God," he said. "Religion is seen as merely a private affair, with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong. Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom."

His positioning reflects a general shift in American political culture toward a more explicit and flamboyant expression of religiosity. But it also revealed his particular challenges as a Mormon in the Republican Party in this moment. Unlike Obama, who has generally faced racialised attacks from outside his own party, Romney is most vulnerable to anti-Mormon attacks from within his own party. In the audience that day were, among others, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, and the Reverend Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition.

They were pleased by the speech. But not everybody was convinced. In October a prominent Texas pastor, Robert Jeffress, branded Mormonism a cult and suggested Romney was not a proper Christian not long after introducing Rick Perry. "This isn't news," he said. "This idea that Mormonism is a theological cult is not news either. That has been the historical position of Christianity for a long time."

"It is only faith in Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ alone, that qualifies you as a Christian," Jeffress said. "They embraced another gospel, the Book of Mormon, and that is why they have never been considered by evangelical Christians to be part of the Christian family."

The trouble, as is always the case with prejudice, is to determine to what extent people are talking about who Romney is and to what extent they are talking about what he does. There are plenty of reasons why right wing conservatives might oppose him that have nothing to do with his denomination.

The fact that he has taken a range of positions on abortion, gun control and provided a prototype for Obama's health-care plan would not endear him to them regardless of his religious beliefs. During his College Station speech Romney insisted that ditching his Mormon faith for something more palatable would not win him much support: "Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world."

The trouble is many on the right feel that while he has remained true to his religion, he has done precisely this in his politics over the years.

"I think people's views on a generic anonymous Mormon can be quite different to their views about a particular candidate that they are familiar with," says Reeve.

The question is whether the religious differences really will translate into any significant effect come polling day. "Romney's biggest problem was in the primaries," says Professor John Green, a political scientist in religion and politics at the University of Akron in Ohio. "When evangelicals have a conservative alternative, in say, Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum they take it. But the part of the country that would most concerned by voting for a Mormon would be even more concerned by the prospect of a second term for Obama. So they'll vote for him."

And that includes pastor Jeffress. "Given the choice between a Christian-like Barack Obama who embraces non-biblical principles like abortion and a Mormon like Mitt Romney who embraces Bible principles, there's every reason to support Mitt Romney in this election," he said. "I think as more evangelicals are aware of what this president is doing, I think they will turn out and vote. Not for partisan reasons, but because he opposes biblical principles."

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