SANDY — What if the president of the United States were a Mormon?
If the scenario were true, Peter Watkins says, members of the media would scrutinize his tax returns and wonder why 10 percent went directly to his church. Devoting three or more hours to church meetings and other duties, home teaching and national coverage of Sister Johnson's sacrament meeting talk might turn some heads. General conference would be a major media event. Attending the temple would become complicated.
And think of the possible political satire. "Saturday Night Live" would have a field day.
The U.S. president is typically the most newsworthy person on the planet, so imagine if he were a Mormon. Picture his 14-person entourage following him into church, said Watkins.
"Interest in the church would be off the charts," Watkins told hundreds gathered recently for the 12th Annual Mormon Apologetics Conference. "If a Mormon gets elected to the White House, there would be exponential exposure. People that don't know Mormons now will, if not personally, one could be in the White House."
The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, which sponsored the conference, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of Mormon doctrine, belief and practice.
Watkins, who graduated from the University of Utah with a communication degree, gained his unique political perspective while serving former President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush in various media related capacities over a five-year span, including as White House spokesman and deputy press secretary to the first lady. He also served as the primary media liaison, from the White House to foreign embassies, during visits of foreign heads of state or government.
As an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and returned missionary who served in Italy, he came to realize the challenges a Mormon president might face.
"I had a unique perspective of something that could potentially be the biggest thing that ever happened to the church from a public perception standpoint," Watkins said.
The president of Watkins Global Strategies, a strategic communication consulting firm in Salt Lake City, shared two experiences from his time in Washington, D.C., to illustrate his points and perspective.
The first occurred a few years back when Watkins was assigned to escort members of the national media to the pope's private courtyard at the Vatican. A cardinal from the Catholic Church was also in the group. As Watkins communicated in Italian with various guards, the reporters noticed and asked where he picked up the language.
"I found myself talking about my mission in the pope's private courtyard with a cardinal and several members of the national media," Watkins said. "It was a far cry from knocking doors on the streets of Sicily."
The second experience involved the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President George W. Bush, the highest honor a civilian can receive.
"Only significant religious leaders have received this award," Watkins said. "It was a big deal and a surreal experience. The president of the LDS Church was being honored by the president of the United States. The fact that the church was recognized was extremely significant."
Watkins acknowledged possible presidential candidate Mitt Romney as an example, but was careful not to endorse him, although he encouraged the audience to be ready for such a scenario and to not be afraid to talk about the church.
In conclusion, Watkins fielded a few questions — the last resulting in boisterous laughter and applause from the audience, which was mostly LDS.
"How much food storage space is there in the White House?" Watkins said smiling. "I am sure there is enough."
e-mail: [email protected]