Mormon missionaries and the Mitt Romney conversation

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 18 2012 8:39 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Aug. 27, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leaves Wolfeboro, N.H.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

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For many full-time missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — particularly those called to LDS missions in the United States — the presidential candidacy of fellow Mormon Mitt Romney has been a godsend.

So to speak.

"People are definitely more curious," Sister Katie Palmer, an LDS missionary from Vernal, Utah, serving in the Massachusetts Boston Mission, told the Boston Globe recently. "It's a big conversation-starter."

Of course, columnist Yvonne Abraham notes that Sister Palmer and her companion, Sister Carrie Williams of Phoenix, don't really have a hard time generating attention and conversation with or without Mitt Romney. As she accompanied the missionaries on a trip to work at a local food pantry, she indicated that their clothing made them stand out.

"It was hot, and the city had stripped down to tank tops and flip-flops," Abraham wrote. "Williams and Palmer wore shirts that covered their arms, skirts that approached their ankles, sensible shoes and large, black name-tags. Just looking at them made you warmer."

The reporter also noted that "the women exude a beatific calm, an extreme equanimity not native to this — or possibly any — part of the world. Some of the clients at the food pantry were cranky, and the sisters barreled along cheerfully, dispensing How's-your-day-goings and Is-your-back-hurtings with the frozen turkey and sliced cheese."

Abraham indicated that the sisters were anxious to engage fellow bus-riders in conversation — mostly about such things as dresses, public transit and homesickness — which quickly morphed into conversations about the LDS Church.

And not Mitt Romney.

In some missions, the missionaries are taught to avoid that particular conversation. In an article profiling the missionary work of Elders Eric Swenson of West Point, Utah, and Hayden Dixon of Las Vegas, in the Longview, Wash., Daily News, it is noted that "if people bring up the fact that presidential candidate Mitt Romney is a Mormon, or other political issues, the missionaries are taught to avoid the subjects."

That would be consistent with the LDS Church's policy of political neutrality. It is also consistent with the church's ongoing "I'm a Mormon" public relations campaign, which has not been tweaked in order to take advantage of — or to enhance — the Romney campaign.

"We continue to run online ads in a variety of places," LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins told the Washington Post, "but there's been no change in the volume or focus of those ads."

Elder Jonathan Walker of American Fork, Utah, a missionary in the California Sacramento Mission and this writer's son, wrote home to his parents that people often drive by the missionaries and shout "Go Mitt!" from their cars.

"One of them pulled over and wanted to talk to us about Mitt," Elder Walker reported. "So I just said, 'We're not really here to talk about Mitt Romney. We're here to talk about Jesus. What is your position on Jesus?'

"The guy was a little thrown off and quickly left," the missionary continued. "I hope I didn't offend him, but I'm not here to talk about a mortal political candidate. I'm here to talk about a man greater than us all."

For that reason, he said, "I'll be happy when this election is over."

Then he concluded his letter with two words: "Go Mitt!"

The missionary did not clarify whether that was a cheer or a supplication.

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