And the winner in the 2012 presidential election is ... the Mormon church
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
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