Fascination with the LDS Church and its doctrines continues unabated among national and international media outlets, especially with the possibility of Mitt Romney becoming president of the most powerful nation on Earth. Major publications continue to explore various aspects of Romney's religion, including how it might impact the race.
Here's our take on some of the questions being asked.
The open hostility among some evangelical Christian Republicans toward Romney appears to be dwindling. Will Romney build support within this voting bloc, or will they protest the Mormon candidate by staying home in November?
Pignanelli: "I left Great Salt Lake a good deal confused as to what state of things existed there and sometimes even questioning in my own mind whether a state of things existed there at all or not." — Mark Twain in "Roughing It." Even America's most popular and foremost author was frustrated in attempting to define Mormons as a homogeneous group that was indistinguishable among individuals. Twenty-first century evangelical leaders — suspicious of the LDS Church — are encountering even more difficulties in branding Mormons under one label. I expected greater opposition to Romney because of his faith, and my mistake is a good sign. All this publicity — good and bad — is fostering a belief by most Americans that Mormons are just like them and share similar problems and issues. The religious wedge against Romney is not providing an incentive for conservative Republicans to do anything that would help Barack Obama.
Webb: The thing that unites conservative Republicans of all religions and ideologies is Obama. Some evangelical Christians might hold their noses, but they will turn out for the Republican nominee. In addition, after six years of campaigning, Romney has become a well-known quantity. He and his surrogates have met with many Christian leaders and they're not finding him all that scary. More Mormon-bashing is now coming from liberals (who wouldn't vote for Romney anyway) than from evangelicals.
Will there be an effort by the anti-Romney political forces to highlight aspects of his faith? Does this help Obama or cause a backlash?
Webb: Bigots of all types will always exist out there, and the prospect of a Mormon president has them slithering from under their rocks to attack the LDS Church. But the Romney and Obama campaigns seem to have called a truce on religion. Neither wants a holy war. If Obama or his surrogates go after Romney's religion, Republican partisans will only be too happy to resurrect offensive comments made by Jeremiah Wright, Obama's pastor for many years.
It is disappointing that the Obama campaign has not disavowed vile comments made by HBO commentator Bill Maher, who has repeatedly ridiculed the LDS Church and distorted its doctrines. Maher has contributed $1 million to an Obama super PAC. Many liberals and Democrats give Maher a pass because they say he is an entertainer. But they allow no such leeway to right-wing entertainers like Rush Limbaugh.
Pignanelli: As election season progresses, there will be organizations unaffiliated with Obama who will link Romney with older LDS doctrines that may give voters pause. All major religions have their own history of racial and gender discrimination. Because the average American is not negatively impacted by what their Mormon neighbors believe, the effectiveness of this effort is questionable. If it gets too nasty, Obama supporters will look desperate. If the economy collapses, all this becomes irrelevant.
As increasing attention is paid to the various nuances of LDS doctrine, does this help or hurt Romney?
Pignanelli: Romney fumbled almost all questions about his faith in 2008. Four years has made a difference, and he has handled the scrutiny in a likable manner. The bigger threat to Romney is his inability to connect with Americans.
Webb: Taken out of context and without background and explanation, a focus on what seems a strange tenet or religious event can hurt. Faith is all about believing and accepting things that may defy current scientific or intellectual explanation. It's easy for unbelievers to single out an event, doctrine or practice of ANY religion and make it the subject of ridicule. Want to see some wild and crazy stuff? Just read the Old Testament. The LDS Church is particularly susceptible because it is a relatively new religion, and fantastic events featuring angels, golden plates and divine appearances happened not all that long ago (and continue to occur, according to believers). It seems to be much easier to accept Moses, with all his miracles, from 3,600 years ago, than heavenly manifestations in relatively recent history.
Romney will win the state of Utah. But if his faith is attacked, will it have ramifications on Utah's other elections?
Webb: Certainly, if national Democrats are blamed for religious bigotry, it will be bad for Utah Democratic candidates. Utah Democrats are in enough trouble just with Romney leading the ticket. They don't need more aggravation on the religion front.
Pignanelli: If the average Mormon Utah voter perceives that the Obama campaign or other Democrats are unfairly attacking Romney over his faith, there will be recriminations at the ballot box. On the other hand, if the perception is that Obama's supporters are enlightened and leave religion out of the discourse, Democrats could garner votes of gratitude.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: email@example.com.