What particularly impressed Monson this year was a willingness on the part of the institutional church to get involved in the discussion — at least, more than it has in the past.
“They found new ways to engage,” he said. “They answered questions about the church and its beliefs and doctrines, and then sent a lot of political questions to professors at BYU.”
Because of the official LDS policy of political neutrality, church officials were “very, very hands off” when it came to engaging in overtly political discussions, Monson said — “almost to a fault.”
“Some of the reporters who ended up in my box were quite irritated,” he said. “But the church was very, very careful to not be perceived as inappropriately helping the Romney campaign in any way. They probably lost some opportunities for more coverage along the way, but if you really believe in political neutrality, I don’t know that you have any choice.”
From the interested perspective of one who is outside the LDS faith but frequently looking in, Dr. Richard J. Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., sees the 2012 presidential campaign as a critical moment for Mormons — “Mormon moment” or not.
“A lot of folks who were very hostile toward Mormonism from the traditional Christian community had to really struggle with the question of whether or not it is OK to vote for a Mormon,” said Mouw, who is also a professor of Christian philosophy at the seminary. “Many of them brought into that struggle a lot of the standard biases about Mormonism — that it is a secretive religion, or a non-Christian cult, or that a Mormon president would take his orders from Salt Lake City, or that he would impose a Mormon agenda on American culture and American public policy.”
Throughout 2012, many American Christians had to decide if they could put aside their biases and vote for a presidential candidate they supported in every way except his religion.
“The net effect was for people to feel pretty good about voting for a Mormon for the presidency,” Mouw said. “That fact alone represented sort of a psychological shift in Christian America this year.”
The “psychological shift” of which Mouw speaks is seen in hard numbers in a survey conducted earlier this month by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life among 1,503 adults. The research showed that while Americans learned little substantively about the LDS Church and its teachings and beliefs during 2012, “there appears to be some warming of attitudes toward Mormonism, especially among religious groups that voted heavily for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.”
Monson said that although any attitude changes that have occurred are likely party-oriented — more among Republicans than Democrats — “there is a lot of evidence to suggest that a number of them did soften.”
“What we don’t know,” he added, “is whether that softening is long-lasting.”
And that, Mouw said, is a critical consideration looking into the future.
“We now have a wonderful opportunity to go back and ask, ‘What have we learned?’ and, ‘What do we need to learn?’” Mouw said.
Mouw knows something about this learning process. For a decade he and some of his evangelical Christian colleagues have met semiannually with a team of BYU professors headed by Dr. Robert L. Millet to talk about the theological differences — and similarities — between Mormons and evangelicals. Those conversations, he says, are exciting because they alleviate misunderstanding — in much the same way that much of the coverage of the LDS Church during 2012 has helped in “clearing up the misunderstandings.”
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