I know a lot of Mormons who don’t like Romney’s politics, but they feel a sense of kinship or sympathy with Romney because he’s part of the tribe. —Matthew Bowman, visiting professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College
Gayle Castleton lives in a house divided. Her husband, Ron, is a strong supporter of Mitt Romney for president. She is a Mormon Democrat who makes no secret of her support for President Barack Obama.
"We've been carefully walking around this whole election thingy," she said, playfully, when asked about Tuesday's presidential election. "We're both really trying to rein in the snarky comments."
Regardless of whose candidate wins, Castleton thinks “it is absolutely amazing that we are having a presidential election between a Mormon candidate and a bi-racial candidate.”
“Who would have ever guessed this one?” she asked. “The only thing that would have made it better is if one of them had been a woman, too.”
While a U.S. presidential election is always important, determining as it does the single most powerful and influential person in the world for the coming four years, for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this presidential election is particularly meaningful. For the first time in history, a Mormon — Mitt Romney — is the candidate of a major political party for the highest office in the land. Last-minute public opinion polls suggest he actually has a solid chance of defeating incumbent Obama in what is likely to be a closely contested race until the final ballot is counted.
Castleton's feeling of amazement was echoed by Joseph A. Cannon, well-known Utah attorney and businessman and former editor of the Deseret News.
“When viewed through the long, contextual lens of history, it really hasn’t been that long — 130 years, to be precise — since my great-grandfather, George Q. Cannon, was denied his duly elected position in the U.S. Congress because he actively practiced his Mormon beliefs,” Cannon said Saturday. “That we are within a few days of the very real possibility that Americans will elect an active, practicing Latter-day Saint as president of the United States is in itself astonishing to me.
“No matter what happens on Election Day,” Cannon continued, “the very fact that a member of the LDS Church is a viable candidate for the highest office in the land is a huge step forward in terms of the image, perception and reputation of the church.”
Which is why Derik Giovannoni, a Latter-day Saint accountant living in Houston, says, “You can’t help but feel a little sense of pride and acceptance” in considering the possibility of a Romney presidency.
“When you think that a religion that comprises fewer than 2 percent of the entire U.S. population may soon claim as members both the U.S. Senate Majority Leader (Sen. Harry Reid) and the president of the United States," Giovannoni noted, "well, I think that goes a long way toward bringing that religion out of obscurity.”
Matthew Bowman, visiting professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith,” has been following the election campaign of a Mormon candidate from both an academic/historical perspective as well as from his perspective as a practicing Latter-day Saint. Based on conversations he has had with church members around the country, he believes “there is a sense of accomplishment.”
“I know a lot of Mormons who don’t like Romney’s politics, but they feel a sense of kinship or sympathy with Romney because he’s part of the tribe,” Bowman said. “There is this tribal loyalty that goes beyond politics. That loyalty won’t necessarily prompt some of these folks to actually vote for him, but they still seem to feel a certain amount of appreciation for what he is accomplishing as a member of the church.”
Of course, that measure of appreciation seems to vary, depending on the part of the country in which Latter-day Saints live, said Dr. Kathleen Flake, associate professor of American Religious History with Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion.
“It’s important to not try to speak for all Latter-day Saints,” she said. “As I read the news reports, it appears that Mormons in Utah are ecstatic with what Mitt Romney has done through the campaign, while church members in other parts of the country seem to be disappointed by Mr. Romney’s unwillingness to talk about his faith and his religion more directly.”
The response by Latter-day Saints to the cultural impacts on the LDS Church of a possible Romney presidency are similarly mixed, Flake said. “But clearly,” she said, “the predominant view in the American West is the feeling that this is a way to broader acceptance.”
Flake, who is a leading expert on the history of the controversial seating of LDS apostle Reed Smoot after he was elected as a U.S. Senator from Utah during the early 1900s, said she sees very little comparison with that political battle and the impact of Romney’s Mormonism on his presidential campaign.
“The differences are greater than the similarities,” she said. “The seating of Apostle Smoot was much more fraught with difficulty. There was real potential for conflict and danger to the church.”
Nor does she see a comparison between what Mormons might feel at the election of a Mormon president and what black Americans felt four years ago with the election of President Obama.
“I think that comparison is inapt,” she said. “The histories are just so different. You can’t really compare the religious prejudice Mormons have experienced through the years with centuries of bigotry and slavery.”
Bowman also thinks another frequent analogy — comparing Romney’s possible election with the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy as the nation’s first Catholic president — lacks the substance of similarity.
“This is not Mormonism’s JFK moment,” he said. “Catholics saw the Kennedy election as a great and historic moment, but the thing that really integrated the Catholic Church into America’s mainstream was the overwhelming size of the Catholic population.
"Should Romney win," Bowman continued, "I don’t think that it by itself will change a great deal about how Americans view Mormons. While there will justly be pride in the accomplishment for a lot of church members, the only thing that will better integrate Mormons culturally in the United States is for there to be a lot more Mormons in a lot more places.
“The major problem the church faces in terms of acceptance is that so many people have never known a Mormon,” he added. “I have kids coming to my classes for whom the only thing they know about Mormons is what they’ve seen on episodes of ‘South Park.’"
If Romney is president, he will obviously be the most visible Mormon, Bowman said. “But until there are a lot more Mormons,” he said, “there is going to continue to be misunderstanding and a certain amount of apprehension.”
Still, the election of a Mormon president may provide more church members with an opportunity to dispel misunderstandings and alleviate apprehension.
“Being from the South,” said Steven Lambert, a Latter-day Saint who lives near Nashville, “it has already presented many opportunities to dispel misconceptions and present the church in a more thought-provoking environment. It gives church members a great opportunity to reach out and show others our love of the Savior and the gospel.”
Steven J. Padilla, an LDS computer security expert who lives in Maryland, said that while he thinks a Romney presidency will be "a great thing for the country and for the church," he approaches the possibility “with some trepidation.”
“I live 10 miles due north of the White House in an extremely liberal area,” he said, noting that two prominent Romney critics — Reid and historian/blogger Greg Prince — are members of his LDS stake. “Our local church leaders are constantly reminding us that discussions at church should focus on the gospel, but politics is always there, sometimes less subtly than others. I fear that with a Mormon president — especially a Republican — this will only get worse.”
Jo Ellen Ashworth isn’t worried about that. Her ward in Bountiful, is decidedly less political. Besides, she says, “I have no feeling of pride or vindication or acceptance that a member of the church might be elected president — I don’t care what other people think about me and I don’t care what other people think about the church.”
“I just hope,” she continued, “that Mitt Romney is a good man and not just a good politician. I hope he has communication with God. I hope he can hear the voice of the Spirit. I hope he has the courage to do what the Spirit tells him to do. My fear is that he will be just like all the previous presidents — which, if you’re a member of the church, isn’t good enough.”
And that, for Linda Grimmett of Arlington, Texas, is more important than the election of a Mormon president.
“I think it’s huge to have a member of the church be the president of the country,” she said. “But that isn’t the most important thing. It isn’t enough that he’s a good Mormon. For him to make a difference, he has to be a good president. I think it will help that he is a prayerful man and that he will seek the guidance of Heavenly Father. But we all have our agency. We all make choices. Having a Mormon president could be good, or it could be all for naught. It just depends on the choices he makes as president.”
One thing is certain about a Romney win in Tuesday’s election, Bowman said: More interest in Mormonism.
“There are a lot of Mormons who are ready to leave ‘the Mormon moment’ behind,” he said. “There is a sense of exhaustion, to the point where it almost feels like everything that can be said about the LDS Church has been said. But if Romney is elected there will likely be another wave of coverage of the church, really granular type of stuff, going into great detail about the church and its history and its policies and practices and how the Romney family fits into all of that.”
“I don’t think the scrutiny will go away,” Flake added. “Mormonism is still a very foreign belief system to most Americans. People are likely to look at Romney’s actions and seek an explanation for them in his Mormonism. Mormonism is so exotic there will still be reporters who want to investigate the Mormon dimension of Romney’s psyche and policies, regardless of whether he’s perceived as a good president or a bad one.”
But if that leads to discussions that dispel myths and open honest dialogue, “that’s awesome,” Castleton said.
“If Romney gets elected, I will be very interested to see how a Mormon White House is run,” said the Utah Democrat. “I suspect alcohol and coffee will be served, and some of the faithful will be appalled by that. And it will continue to frustrate me when most commentators (on Mormonism) get it wrong.
“But,” she concluded, “there is one thing that a Romney presidency will not be for my brothers and sisters in the church, whether they are Republicans and Democrats: It won't be boring.”
In compliance with Deseret News policy, comments will not be posted on political stories and editorials from now until the polls close Tuesday, Nov. 6.