Mormonism still raising questions among Americans, in New York Times forum

Published: Friday, Feb. 3 2012 1:26 p.m. MST

Billboards in the Atlanta area depict images of the "I'm a Mormon" media campaign.

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Too much money, too perfect, too happy, too disconnected with the real world.

Is it Mitt Romney people are bothered with, or the Mormon Church?

Despite Romney's attempts to persuade the American public to vote for him on record and not religion, voters in South Carolina showed how skeptical some people still are to accept the Mormon candidate. According to exit polls charted by Christianity Today, Romney especially struggled among born-again/evangelical Christians who threw most of their support behind a thrice-married Catholic rather than back Romney, even though he earlier got more than 50 percent of the same voters in New Hampshire.

Now three of five writers invited by the New York Times to write for a debate forum this week titled "What is it about Mormons?" say there are reasons to question Romney and fear his religion. A fourth also used the forum to "bash" the LDS Church, wrote Tipsheet blogger Carol Platt Liebau, who called some of the pieces examples of "bigotry," "anti-Mormon smears" and "despicable."

The Media Research Center Network's Times Watch blog found the fears odd and inconsistent: "Can you imagine the Times printing an op-ed likening devout Muslims to sheep," Clay Waters asked, "or mocking their religious rituals?"

The essays featured several stereotypes.

"Mormonism is a valid issue of concern not as a religious test for office, but for its most distinctive characteristic — male authoritarianism," author Sally Denton wrote for the debate forum. "Only 'worthy males' can ascend to positions of power — both now and in the afterlife — and women are relegated to supporting roles… Given that Mitt Romney is a high church official and not just a member, voters are right to be circumspect."

Many Mormons would disagree over what is the most distinctive feature of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and with Denton's depiction of "male authoritarianism." She is wrong about Romney's position in the church: Romney is not a high church official, though he has served in the past as a stake president, responsible for multiple congregations, like a Catholic diocese.

Romney's financial devotion to the LDS Church has also been a cause of concern for some.

CNN, like many others, reported Romney contributed $4 million to the Church over the past two years in tithing contributions.

"For Mormons, tithing is an article of faith, not an economic principal," Terryl Givens, a Mormon professor at University of Richmond, told CNN by way of explanation. "Some critics see it as tying worthiness to an economic contribution… It's an important differentiator between devout Mormons and nominal Mormons."

A recent Pew Survey confirms Givens assessment that the Mormon tithe characterizes devout members, as 79 percent of Mormons surveyed said they contribute one-tenth of their income to the Church.

However, despite the report's other findings that Mormons are hard-working, civic-minded and emphasize family life, Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, a professor of American religious history at the University of North Carolina, wrote the Mormon lifestyle itself is what makes Americans uncomfortable.

"Just as Mormons seem to be ideal Americans, they also provoke typically American fears," Maffly-Kipp wrote for the forum. "No matter how much Mormon behavior conforms to what most consider admirable (and maybe especially because they look so wholesome), some Americans are convinced Mormons secretly await an opportunity to take over the world."

Indeed, some have seen the church's involvement in politics as an effort at doing just that. Jane Barnes, co-author of the 2007 PBS series "The Mormons," fears having Romney in office if the church takes a stand on a social issue.

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