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Mormons grapple with media attention during Romney run

By Manya A. Brachear, Chicago Tribune –

As Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney continues his drive to win his party’s nomination, Mormons worry they could face a barrage of negative scrutiny, much like that which engulfed President Barack Obama’s former church on Chicago’s South Side four years ago.

And there is disagreement among Mormons on how aggressively the faithful should defend their faith in the context of a political campaign.

So far, church officials in Salt Lake City have cautiously approached invitations to debate critics of the faith, discuss Romney’s candidacy or talk about “The Book of Mormon,” a hit Broadway musical.

Yet some Mormon volunteers and scholars have jumped into the fray, eager to stave off attacks when church officials take the silent approach. They don’t want to see their religion vilified by people who don’t know much about the faith or those with political agendas.

“It’s impossible to counter all of them,” said Jana Riess, a Mormon author who has organized a conference about the church and politics at Columbia University in New York. “It’s like playing whack-a-mole. But the tenor of the debate has reached a new level of urgency.”

Political rhetoric has fueled that urgency, said John Lynch, founder of Mormon Voices, a non-profit group formed last year to correct misinformation and clarify complex Mormon theology that can get twisted in the political arena.

Originally conceived as the Mormon Defense League, Lynch changed the name to illustrate the diversity of perspectives in the church and to encourage other Latter-day Saints to get involved.

“Mormons are reticent to go and become defensive and bash people,” Lynch said. “Bigotry in religion, when it comes to Mormons, has been winked at and tolerated — and it shouldn’t be.”

Lynch saw the writing on the wall in 2008 when former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee suggested that Romney believed Jesus and the devil were brothers.

Mormons believe Jesus was the only begotten son of God and consider him divine. But they also believe Satan was one of God’s first spiritual children, that he rebelled and turned to evil, and was later disinherited.

Huckabee’s off-handed remark, interpreted by many Mormons as a slap in the face, quickly prompted an apology and a pledge by him to leave Romney’s religion alone. But the jab underscored the complex theology and history of the Latter-day Saints that’s hard to simplify into sound bites.

For example, Mormons reject the traditional Christian concept of the Trinity. They believe God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost are three separate divine entities sharing a common purpose.

Their Scripture includes both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, a chronicle of events in North America where, Mormons believe, Jesus returned after his crucifixion and resurrection.

Baptism or the washing away of sins is a rite not just for the living but also the dead. Posthumous baptisms are done inside temples on behalf of the departed so they still have the opportunity to become Mormon in the afterlife.

Polygamy was set aside in 1890 by mainstream Mormons. But some Mormons believe it still exists in the afterlife, and self-proclaimed Fundamentalist Mormons (not part of the mainstream church) still practice it today.

Then there’s the claim that Mormons can become gods of their own planets. Mormons say everyone should aim to become godlike. The particulars of how that unfolds are unknown.

Try explaining all of that in 30 seconds or less.

“I think people in the church PR department understand that any theological nuance about any complex doctrine is pretty much going to be lost on the average person who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time wading through doctrine,” Riess said.

That’s especially true during a campaign season when most conversations are politically charged and politicians are striving to stay “on message.”

Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the Latter-day Saints church, said that although the increased interest is welcome, all interview requests are treated as if they have the potential to turn political or paint members into uncomfortable corners.

Most Mormon leaders serve as volunteers without seminary training. The national church doesn’t necessarily want them engaging in theological debates, Hawkins said. The church’s leaders also don’t want individual members to come across as endorsing or impugning Romney on behalf of the church, which must remain politically neutral, or risk losing its tax exemption.

The church declined to participate in a radio show in Chicago on Wednesday night for fear that it would devolve into a showdown with someone who disagreed with Mormon beliefs.

“We are not really interested in debating religious tenets and arguing over matters of doctrine,” Hawkins said. “We hope to be able to explain who we are rather than spend a lot of time responding to what we’re not.”

Riess did the show with a Mormon Studies scholar. Neither one of them cleared the show with Salt Lake City, they said.

As a general rule, the church encourages its members to get involved in government and their communities. The church itself backed California Proposition 8 to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry, to the dismay of some members.

But when it comes to political candidates, the church encourages impartiality, said Steve Evans of Verona, Wis., who started an online community for nearly two dozen independent Mormon bloggers called By Common Consent.

He points to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada; former U.S. Sen. Reed Smoot, who authored a tariff act blamed for exacerbating the Great Depression; and Ezra Taft Benson, a former secretary of agriculture and member of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society, who aligned the church with the Republican Party and later became the president and prophet of the church.

“Mormons with high-ranking political positions have always been a mixed bag for the church,” Evans said.

Romney is not the first Mormon to make a bid for the White House. His father, George, ran for the Republican nomination in 1968. The church’s first prophet, Joseph Smith, ran for president in 1844, the same year he was assassinated and two years before Mormon pioneers were driven out of the western Illinois town of Nauvoo.

Historians are unclear whether anti-Mormon sentiment led to the end of Smith’s presidential bid and life or the campaign fueled anti-Mormon sentiment. That same chicken-or-egg debate about Romney’s campaign and anti-Mormon sentiment exists today.

To address concerns, Romney delivered a speech in 2007 that many compared to John F. Kennedy’s defense of Catholicism in the 1960 election. But Riess said Romney’s campaign is more like that of Al Smith, an Irish Catholic who ran in 1928, when Catholics were a persecuted minority, much like Mormons she said.

Many also think by mentioning his own faith only once, Romney’s speech fell flat compared to JFK’s speech on religion and Obama’s speech a year later on race, sparked by the release of controversial sound bites from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.

Obama’s speech, experts say, seized an opportunity to explain the context and history of the African-American church and liberation theology.

Riess said the church has been so intent on distancing itself from historical blemishes such as polygamy that some Mormons don’t know their own history until they read about it on Google. For example, a timeline of Brigham Young’s life published in a study manual for Mormons around the globe never mentions his 40 wives.

“The church does a disservice to its own theology and history when it only presents one point of view,” Riess said.

This Mormon moment thus offers a chance for the church to educate the general American public as well as members, she said.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for Mormons to demonstrate we’re not all the same,” Riess said. “We don’t have a plot to take over America.”

Evans embraces the uncertainty and the steep learning curve.

“Everybody is still trying to figure out what the religion is about,” Evans said. “That makes it exciting. It’s a frontier religion in many senses of the word. It’s kind of neat to be on the frontier.”

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