Romney candidacy puts spotlight on Mormonism

Utah-based church hopes to clear up misunderstandings

By THOMAS BURR Salt Lake Tribune Published:

WASHINGTON -- When the world came to Salt Lake City in 2002 for the Winter Olympics, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints courted American and international journalists with snazzy videos, calendars and press packets, pitching stories on how the faith sprouted from humble roots to become one of the fastest-growing religions.

Ten years later, as the spotlight on Mitt Romney's candidacy reflects onto the Utah-based religion, the church says it plans to be more restrained -- using the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings, but not to convert people to the Mormon fold or to weigh into the politics of the race.

"Our primary interest is simply to educate people about the church and to help them understand who we are," says Michael Purdy, the faith's media relations director.

While many have focused on Romney and how he'll handle concerns about his faith, the flip side of the issue is just as complex: How will the LDS Church deal with questions about Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee?

Too aggressive and it'll seem like the church is promoting Romney and taking advantage of a political race.

Too hands-off and the church misses a chance to introduce itself, or ends up looking closed-off and secretive.

Finding the right balance could prove challenging for the faith of 6 million Americans that still faces a slew of ignorant stereotypes -- and some historical actions that are prime for front-page stories.

"There's no scrutiny that compares to the presidential race scrutiny," says author and LDS observer Joanna Brooks.

For the church, questions about Romney are met with suggestions to ask his campaign; questions about the faith in relation to Romney are answered, essentially, by walking a very distinct line that avoids talk about political issues and focuses on the church itself.

The faith's newsroom website now includes a series, "Getting it Right," looking at recent news media coverage, commenting on the stories and adding links to doctrine referenced by reporters.

Mormons have come under the microscope of American curiosity before.

Donny and Marie Osmond brought interest. Romney's father, George Romney, ran for president. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch tried that, too.

Harry Reid became the highest-ranking Mormon in government when he ascended to Senate majority leader. And then there was HBO's "Big Love" and the "Book of Mormon" Broadway musical.

"I don't think this is new to (the church), as much as we want to make a big deal about it," says Lane Beattie, the president of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce who served as chief Olympics officer for Utah during the 2002 Games.

During that time, journalists routinely called Beattie to ask about whether visitors could get a drink in Utah and where to find the polygamists.

But some facets of the faith aren't easy to explain, such as the church's polygamist past or its ban on blacks holding the faith's priesthood until 1978.

Catholic John F. Kennedy also faced misunderstandings in his 1960 bid for president. His case, though, was much different.

"I don't think the Catholic hierarchy in 1960 had to worry about introducing Catholicism to Americans," said David Campbell, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, and a Mormon.

The Mormon faith could benefit from the Romney campaign by engaging in more conversations about the religion, Campbell notes, but it also could be harmful for the church, as its most prominent member is a politician and "politics is a nasty business."

"It's a sticky wicket for the LDS Church," Campbell says. "Thus far, to be fair, I think the church has handled it pretty well."

(Contact Thomas Burr at tburr@sltrib.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

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