Religion and politics have long been the "oil and water" of any social gathering, where political correctness and polite conversation dictate avoidance, or at best, whispered interchange.
But the "faith factor" in presidential politics has changed the discussion of late for American Mormons, who are now constantly confronted with questions about their belief in Christ or the lack thereof. So as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gather today for their 177th Semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City, it is against the backdrop of a politically charged landscape that has placed their doctrine and history in the spotlight as never before.
Though leaders of the LDS Church have long maintained the faith's political neutrality, their recent initiatives to define the church on its own terms, rather than allowing the media, political think tanks, Christian pundits or skeptics to do so, have come after years of offering a more subtle response to the question of whether Mormons are Christians.
Raised daily in continuing media accounts about Mitt Romney's run for the White House, the question has been magnified beyond its most recent incarnation a decade ago, when leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention were preparing to hold their annual convention in Salt Lake City and stated publicly that Latter-day Saints are not Christians.
That declaration caught the attention of former President Jimmy Carter, who told reporters in 1997 that Southern Baptist leaders were "trying to act as the Pharisees did ... in trying to define who can and who cannot be considered an acceptable person in the eyes of God. In other words, they are making judgments on behalf of God. I think that's wrong."
Since then, the "Mormons as Christians" question has become a hot topic among the nation's evangelical Christians, who by many estimates include roughly one-third of Americans. Recent surveys show many of them are drawn to Romney's values but repelled by his faith. The issue has also been raised in nationally televised candidate debates and become the subject of political columnists across the ideological spectrum.
From the faith's infancy, Latter-day Saints have been publicly categorized in ways with which they disagree, but a worldwide membership of 13 million, the church's ranking as the fourth largest denomination in the United States and its growing political clout has brought the church "out of obscurity" nevertheless.
To counter what the church sees as inaccuracies and stereotypes about what the church teaches and what it requires of its members, two new initiatives directed at media have been added to a string of recent public pronouncements by the church, designed to provide detailed answers to questions that intersect faith and politics.
The first was inaugurated earlier this week, when two LDS Public Affairs officials held the church's first-ever live online press conference for more than two dozen religion reporters across the country. In addition to taking live questions, the press conference featured eight video clips of Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve addressing questions the church is frequently asked. Five of the eight dealt with the role of Jesus Christ and how others have tried to define the church:
• "Are you Christian? What is the role of Jesus Christ in your faith?"
• "Why do some people say your church is a cult?"
• "Do you worship Jesus Christ in your church services?"
• "How are your beliefs similar to those of other Christians?" and "How do your beliefs differ from other Christians?"
The church's Web site, www.lds.org, now contains an archive of both the press conference and the video clips, which can be viewed by both the media and the public by clicking the "newsroom" section of the main Web page. Officials said if the press conference was considered successful among reporters, they would likely conduct similar events in the future, featuring top church leaders to answer questions live online.
Also featured in the newsroom is a new section headlined "Core Beliefs: Why and How Are Mormons Different?" The explanation features a large painting of Jesus Christ, with a listing of "some of the more important differences in belief and practice between the (LDS) church and other Christian churches."
The second, and to some a more surprising, initiative involves a move to have members of the Quorum of the Twelve, the church's second-highest governing body, visit with editorial boards of major media outlets across the nation in the near future. While LDS Public Affairs officials have been making such site visits for some time now, unofficial protocol among top church leaders in the past has been to grant periodic interviews to reporters who seek them out and meet at the leaders' convenience.
Other than announcing that the visits would soon take place, no other information was provided.
The newest public moves directed specifically at the media come after officials quietly posted an official statement on the Web late last year, trying to make it clear that Mormon political candidates, including Romney, won't be expected to follow their direction on matters of public policy.
The statement explains that the church does not "attempt to direct or dictate to a government leader" and that while LDS leaders may communicate the church's view to any politician, LDS or not, the church "recognizes that these officials still must make their own choices based on their best judgment and with consideration of the constituencies they were elected to represent."
LDS politicians "make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with the publicly stated church position," the statement says.
The full statement can be found by clicking on the Web site's "newsroom" tab, then look under the "public issues" tab and click on "political neutrality."
Previously, when asked about matters of politics, church officials would answer with a short statement affirming the faith's political neutrality, urging members to vote for the candidate of their choice, adding that LDS buildings and membership lists are off limits to politicians and that candidates are not to imply the church's endorsement.
Now that Romney is a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, the church has taken what many see as a more "offensive" stance, rather than simply waiting to defend itself when others attempt to define its beliefs, its history, or its influence in the lives of its members who happen to be politicians.
Leaders also point to the fact that Romney is only one among many politicians who draw attention to the church in some way.While it won't generate the kind of continuing publicity the Romney campaign has drawn, another Latter-day Saint with national political clout, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, will speak Tuesday at a Brigham Young University forum assembly in the Marriott Center on the topic, "Faith, Family and Public Service." The speech will be broadcast live locally on KBYU-TV, Channel 11, and rebroadcast Oct. 14 at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on BYU-TV.