Tabernacle on Trial
Mormons Dismayed By Harsh Spotlight
Mitt Romney’s campaign for the presidency brought more attention to the Mormon Church than it has had in years. What the church discovered was not heartening.
Critics of its doctrines and culture launched frequent public attacks. Polling data showed that far more Americans say they’d never vote for a Mormon than those who admitted they wouldn’t choose a woman or an African-American.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in late January revealed that 50% of Americans said they would have reservations or be “very uncomfortable” about a Mormon as president. That same poll found that 81% would be “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” with an African-American and 76% with a woman.
The Mormon religion “was the silent factor in a lot of the decision making by evangelicals and others,” says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted the poll. The Romney campaign ran into “a religious bias head wind,” Mr. Hart and his Republican polling partner, Bill McInurff, wrote late last month.
“I don’t think that any of us had any idea how much anti-Mormon stuff was out there,” said Armand Mauss, a Mormon sociologist who has written extensively about church culture, in an interview last week. “The Romney campaign has given the church a wake-up call. There is the equivalent of anti-Semitism still out there.”
Yesterday, the former Massachusetts governor said he was suspending his quest for the Republican nomination, following a poor showing in the “Super Tuesday” contests. Mr. Romney made no mention of his religion when he withdrew.
There were many other factors that may have contributed to his failed campaign. He didn’t gain sufficient traction among the social conservatives influential to his party. Opponents attacked him, saying he changed his moderate stances to more conservative ones to attract votes, including his position on abortion.
Some observers play down religious bias as a factor. Ken Jennings, a Mormon who was a “Jeopardy!” champion, says anti-Mormon attacks “contributed” to Mr. Romney’s problems, but weren’t the only obstacle. “I suspect there were bigger forces in play than the religion,” such as perceptions that Mr. Romney had shifted his positions, says Mr. Jennings, of Seattle. “There were principled reasons to say, ‘I like McCain over Romney.'”
Religion “wasn’t a factor in the governor’s decision to step aside,” says Eric Fehrnstrom, a campaign spokesman. “There was a lot more focus on religion early on in the race, but as people learned more about Gov. Romney, his success as a businessman and as leader of the Olympics, it receded as an issue into the background.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Romney’s campaign exposed a surprisingly virulent strain of anti-Mormonism that had been largely hidden to the general public.
In December, political pundit and actor Lawrence O’Donnell Jr. unleashed a tirade on the “McLaughlin Group” television talk show, tearing into the Mormon Church and Mr. Romney’s faith. “Romney comes from a religion founded by a criminal who was anti-American, pro-slavery, and a rapist. And he comes from that lineage and says, ‘I respect this religion fully.’ . . . He’s got to answer.”
Mormons were outraged. Hundreds complained to the show and on radio talk shows and the Internet, protesting that the remarks about church founder Joseph Smith were bigoted and unfounded.
Mr. O’Donnell, a former MSNBC commentator who plays a lawyer for polygamists on the HBO drama “Big Love,” says he has nothing to apologize for. “Everything I said was true,” he says. Although the McLaughlin Group says it will keep Mr. O’Donnell off the air for now, neither MSNBC nor HBO plans to take action against him, spokespeople say.
“The vast majority of Americans recognize that one of our strengths as a nation is our tolerance for religions that are different than our own,” says Mr. Fehrnstrom, the campaign spokesman. “Sadly, not every person thinks that way, but there’s nothing that can be said or done to change their small minds.”
For Mormons, Mr. O’Donnell’s comments were a rallying cry. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are taught not to argue with outsiders over faith. But as criticism of their church rose to new heights during the campaign, they took on their antagonists like never before, in a wave of activism encouraged by church leadership.
Mormon leaders and church members say they were initially unprepared for the intensity of attacks, which many say were unprecedented in modern times. The attacks, they say, are a sign that their long struggle for wide acceptance in America is far from over, despite global church expansion and prosperity.
On the Internet, the Romney bid prompted an outpouring of broadsides against Mormonism from both the secular and religious worlds. Evangelical Christian speakers who consider it their mission to criticize Mormon beliefs lectured to church congregations across the country. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the Catholic journal First Things, wrote that a Mormon presidency would threaten Christian faiths. Atheist author Christopher Hitchens called Mormonism “a mad cult” on Slate.com, and Bill Keller, a former convict who runs an online ministry in Florida, told a national radio audience that a vote for Mr. Romney was a vote for Satan.
“It seems like it’s been open season on Mormons,” says Marvin Perkins, a Los Angeles Mormon Church member who lectures about the history of blacks in the church.
Mr. Romney was reluctant to speak publicly about his religion. Eventually, senior advisers persuaded him to do so to allay voter concerns about how it might affect his decision-making as president. Comparisons were made to a campaign speech that John Kennedy, who became America’s first Roman Catholic president, delivered to an audience of Baptists. Although Mr. Romney’s December speech was well-received by political pundits, it did little to move his polling numbers.
That same month, M. Russell Ballard, one of the church’s 12 apostles, or governors, urged students at a graduation at Church-owned Brigham Young University to use the Internet and “new media” to defend the faith. At least 150 new Mormon sites were created and registered with the site mormon-blogs.com. “People were haranguing us on the Internet,” Mr. Ballard said in an interview. “I just felt we needed to unleash our own people.”
Normally insular church leaders, with help from Washington-based consultant Apco Worldwide, began a public-relations campaign last fall, visiting 11 editorial boards of newspapers across the country. In another first, the church posted a series of videos, some featuring Mr. Ballard, on YouTube to counter a wave of anti-Mormon footage on the site.
Many Mormons were excited by Mr. Romney’s candidacy. “There’s a member of the tribe that’s up there,” Nathan Oman, an assistant professor at William and Mary School of Law, said last month, adding that he had not yet decided whom to vote for. “What happens to him is a test of whether or not our tribe gets included in the political universe.”
Mormonism began in 1830 after Joseph Smith, a farmer in upstate New York, said an angel led him to some golden plates that contained a “New World gospel” — the Book of Mormon. Mormons regard themselves as Christians, but some Christian denominations, including the Southern Baptist Convention, do not. They regard as heresy the Mormon belief that Mr. Smith was a prophet and that the Bible was not the final word of God.
The faith’s early history was marked by tension and brutal forced exiles, sparked in part by the practice of polygamy by some church members. After Mr. Smith was arrested in Nauvoo, Ill., a mob killed him and drove off his followers. The Mormons fled to Utah. Polygamy fed repeated conflicts with the federal government until the church banned the practice world-wide in 1904. The church has flourished in recent years, and claims 13 million members world-wide.
Mr. Romney’s candidacy revived old lines of attack and mockery of some of the church’s unusual practices, such as secret ceremonies, the wearing of special undergarments, and the baptizing the dead in the belief that it will help them join family members in heaven.
Among the most active critics were practitioners of evangelical Christian “apologetics” — speakers and writers who make their mission to actively defend their faith. For some of them, that involves criticizing Mormonism.
At the Life Point Bible Church in Quincy, Ill., last month, evangelical apologist Rocky Hulse told 35 members that Mr. Romney should not be considered a Christian. Mr. Hulse, a former Mormon, told the group that Mormons believe in more than one god and that they believe God impregnated Mary in the normal fashion, not by granting her a virgin birth. The audience sat rapt.
Scott Gordon, president of the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research, a Mormon group, says Mr. Hulse is wrong on the facts. Mormons pray to one God, he says, and believe, like most Christians, that Mary was a virgin. Mr. Gordon went on talk-radio shows to rebut claims of other apologists.
In December, while campaigning for the Iowa caucuses, former Baptist preacher and Republican candidate Mike Huckabee asked a magazine reporter: “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” The Southern Baptist Convention, Mr. Huckabee’s denomination, posts essays on its Web site saying Mormonism is a non-Christian cult.
Mormon church leaders, who repeatedly asserted the church’s neutrality in elections, had tried to keep out of the political fray. Church spokesman Michael Otterson says they couldn’t ignore Mr. Huckabee’s comment. Members said it implied that they were devil worshipers. Phones were ringing off the hook at church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
“Jesus Christ and Lucifer are indeed offspring of our Heavenly Father and, therefore, spirit brothers” from a pre-existing world, the church said in a statement. “Christ was the only begotten in the flesh.”
“I’m not impugning the motives of a political candidate,” Mr. Otterson said. “But the result of the question was to confuse the situation, not to enlighten.” Mr. Huckabee swiftly apologized to Mr. Romney for the comment. He handily won the Iowa caucuses, helped by huge numbers of evangelicals.
(Mr. Huckabee himself may face voter opposition for his religious views. The January Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that 45% of Americans have concerns about an evangelical Christian as president.)
Soon, the Mormon Church began posting its videos on YouTube — 22 so far. One clip, for example, showed Mr. Ballard, the church apostle, answering the question “Are Mormons Christian?” It has drawn 26,000 views. By contrast, a cartoon clip from “The God Makers,” a 1980s film that mocks Mormon beliefs, has been viewed 945,000 times.
Mr. Ballard’s call for more new-media activism inspired dozens of new Web sites. On Politicalds.com, several Mormons of different political views write about the presidential race. Founder Mike Rogan, of Chandler, Ariz., says he started the blog “to combat some specific misconceptions about Mormons,” including that all Mormons are “conservatives with a mindless ‘sheep’ mentality.”
Mr. Hitchens, the best-selling author of “God is Not Great,” wrote last fall that Mr. Romney owed voters a discussion about “the mad cult” of his church. Similar commentaries inspired Ryan Bell, a Salt Lake City attorney, to start a Web site, Romney Experience.com last summer. “Every faith has wacky doctrines,” he says, adding that the press seems fixated on his faith’s more sensational side.
Mormon fury boiled over after Mr. O’Donnell’s appearance on the “McLaughlin Group,” when he called Mr. Smith a proslavery criminal and rapist. He said Mr. Romney “was” a racist because he was a member of a church that discriminated against blacks until 1978.
Mr. Bell and others responded on their Web sites that church founder Mr. Smith, who faced many charges in his turbulent life, including treason, was never convicted of any crimes. (At least one Mormon historian says he was found guilty of a misdemeanor as a minor for fraud, but others say incomplete court records make it impossible to determine.)
The allegations about blacks stung the most. Many Mormon historians say Mr. Smith welcomed blacks from the church’s inception, had ordained some blacks, and ran on an abolitionist platform for president in 1844. Blacks were barred from being church leaders, they say, by his successor, Brigham Young. Many Protestant churches, Mr. Bell pointed out, were segregated well into the 20th century. In 1978, the church lifted the ban on blacks becoming leaders.
Mormons called on the “McLaughlin Group” to take action against Mr. O’Donnell. Host John McLaughlin decided that Mr. O’Donnell, who appeared seven times last year, will be kept off the air for now, says Allison Butler, the show’s managing director. Any apology to Mormons must come from him, Ms. Butler says.
Although Mr. Romney’s withdrawal from the race is likely to quiet the controversy for now, many church members believe the turmoil of the past year will have lasting effects.
“There will be a long-term consequence in the Mormon church,” says Mr. Mauss, the Mormon sociologist. “I think there is going to be a wholesale reconsideration with how Mormons should deal with the latent and overt anti-Mormon propaganda. I don’t think the Mormons are ever again going to sorrowfully turn away and close the door and just keep out of the fray.”