From a Mormon standpoint, it has to be encouraging, since the softening of the 'cult' rhetoric diminishes the 'strangeness' factor that is always tied to charges that Mormons aren't Christians. —J.B. Haws, historian
Stan Way, a Latter-day Saint from Jasper, Ala., had just finished dinner out with some Mormon missionaries when he noticed a car slowing as it approached.
The missionaries were wearing the traditional white shirts and dark ties that identify them as Latter-day Saints. It was about a month before Election Day, when voters would decide whether Republican Mitt Romney, the first Mormon major party presidential nominee, would become the first Mormon president.
The driver stopped and lowered her car window. "Hey," she said, "it's a good time to be a Mormon!" Then she drove off.
"We stood there in shock," Way said. "That usually doesn't happen in Alabama."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has entered a new era after Romney's run for president. His candidacy illuminated a changing landscape for the religion, where Americans are growing more curious than fearful about the faith, and allies can be found even among Christians with deep misgivings about Mormon beliefs.
"After this, it's hard to say the Mormons are really outsiders," said Jan Shipps, a scholar of American religion and expert on the LDS church.
No one would argue that prejudice and misunderstanding have disappeared. And many wonder how long the new tolerance will last beyond the election. But over the years since Romney first indicated he would try for president, there have been signs of real progress.
Mormons no longer stand alone against insults to their church; leaders of other faiths join them in protest. Christians who once spoke about Mormonism only to condemn it, now also acknowledge the church's dedication to family, charity and community service. Until recently, prominent Christian preachers risked their standing in their communities by appearing at the Salt Lake Tabernacle. That backlash has since diminished. And ministries such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association are discouraging conservative Christians from calling the LDS church a cult, a theological term with a specific meaning for Christians that morphed over the years into a broad rebuke.
"I think this change in tone is significant, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out in the long run," said J.B. Haws, a historian at Brigham Young University who researches public perception of the LDS church. "From a Mormon standpoint, it has to be encouraging, since the softening of the 'cult' rhetoric diminishes the 'strangeness' factor that is always tied to charges that Mormons aren't Christians."
Richard Mouw, dean of Fuller Theological Seminary, a prominent evangelical school in Pasadena, Calif., said Romney's candidacy didn't cause the shift, but was a sign of changes already under way.
Mouw is co-leader of a group of evangelical and Mormon scholars who have been working behind the scenes for more than a decade to bring civility to their theological debate. In recent years, growing numbers of evangelical and other religious figures have made their way to Temple Square. Mormon authorities have also been reaching out, scheduling visits with leaders of other faith traditions while traveling for regular church business, according to Michael Purdy, a spokesman for the LDS church.
The Rev. George O. Wood, head of the Assemblies of God, one of the largest U.S. Pentecostal denominations, met in September with LDS authorities and local evangelical leaders in Utah. The Assemblies of God considers Mormonism heretical, but Wood said leaders from the two churches can relate over their similar "marginalized and persecuted backgrounds."
At the same time, non-Mormons are having more frequent contact with Latter-day Saints in their everyday lives.
Christian conservatives often find themselves working with Mormons in the business world, Mouw said. (Evangelicals often ask him if it's OK to pray with Mormons at a working lunch.) At a recent talk about Mormonism to an evangelical community in Phoenix, Mouw said about a dozen people came up to him afterward and said, "My pastor says Mormons are evil, but I have next door neighbors who are Mormon and are really wonderful people."
During the rollercoaster anyone-but-Romney Republican primary, the prospects for civil discussion about Mormonism seemed dim as evangelical leaders scrambled for an alternative nominee. Their motivations were varied, including concern that Romney wasn't sufficiently conservative. However, religion was a factor.
At a private Texas meeting of evangelical leaders last January, organized to decide who they should back, Romney received just four votes out of about 150, according to Mark DeMoss, an evangelical adviser to Romney who was there representing the campaign. The leaders endorsed former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a conservative Roman Catholic.
"I thought there was much more negative attention to the LDS church and its beliefs and history in the primaries," said David Banack, a Latter-day Saint and Wyoming attorney who voted for Romney.
Once it was clear Romney would be the nominee, criticism of Mormonism mostly stopped. (Banack also credits President Barack Obama for restraint on the topic during the election. "There aren't many positive things I would say about the Obama campaign," Banack said, "but that was one of them.")
Interest shifted away from beliefs that set Mormons apart to how Mormons worship and live. The spotlight on Romney spread to a broad array of Latter-day Saints, including Harvard management gurus, authors and bloggers. At the University of Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish football team is led by star linebacker Manti Te'o, a Latter-day Saint who talks openly about how he prayed to choose among the dozens of college scholarships he was offered.
On a few occasions, reporters managed to attend church with Romney and his wife, Ann. LDS leaders in many cities held open houses, called "Meet the Mormons" or "The Mormons Next Door," to answer questions about the faith. The Republican National Convention included emotional stories from fellow Mormons about how Romney had helped them and their families while he was a church leader in Massachusetts. Latter-day Saints have no professional clergy and their congregations are led by lay volunteers.
"I thought he put the religion up there front and center in a positive light, even though he didn't make it a focus," said Anthony Ramon, a 49-year-old Salt Lake City investment broker who is Mormon and voted for Romney. "They (Americans) know a little more about people that represent the Mormon religion, and I think it will drive away further controversy."
On Election Day, evangelicals, a key Republican constituency, supported Romney in greater numbers than they did 2008 GOP nominee John McCain, according to exit polls.
However disappointing Romney's loss to Obama, Shipps said it was likely the best outcome for the church. As the first Mormon in one of the most powerful jobs in the world, any unpopular moves Romney would have made in the U.S. or abroad could have rebounded badly on Mormonism. Now, the church will get a break from the spotlight. After the election, Mouw estimates that evangelicals can be divided into thirds: one group that accepts Mormonism, another that rejects it, and another group that is conflicted about the faith.
Sarah Fishler Rice, a 32 year-old Latter-day Saint from Salem, Ore., didn't vote for Romney. A registered Democrat, she cast a ballot for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. But she said Romney had performed a service for Mormonism.
"I think at the end of the election, people were seeing him for his political beliefs rather than his religious beliefs, I think that was a really big hurdle that he overcame," Rice said. "Maybe the next time — maybe one of his sons will run for president one day — people will get over the Mormon issue more quickly and see the candidates for who they are."
AP reporter Paul Foy contributed from Salt Lake City. Follow Rachel Zoll at www.twitter.com/rzollAP