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Mitt Romney and Mormonism in the Presidential Election: A Retrospective

In 2012, the Republican Party offered Mitt Romney, a Mormon, as their official presidential candidate, the first Mormon ever to serve as the candidate of a major party. It has been about a year since the election ended with his defeat. Just after the election, many sources tried to evaluate the impact of his campaign on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the actual name of the “Mormon Church.” Now, with a year behind us, we can look at the results with a better perspective.

Mitt Romney MormonAs of this writing, only one article addressing the campaign’s anniversary has even mentioned religion as a factor—and decided it was not a factor in the election results. A new book on the election by Washington Post correspondent Dan Balz does not consider Mormonism worth mentioning in either the table of contents or the index, suggesting that in the long run, it is not being seen as having been a factor in the actual election, although it has had an impact on Mormonism. Although religion seemed important at the time, the year has led most people to believe it was not as important as it seemed, although it has impacted Mormons.

Religion during the 2012 Presidential Election

During the campaign, the media made much of Mitt Romney’s religion. Nearly every article on him mentioned it. Polls in those earlier days suggested that most Americans didn’t even know he was a Mormon, leading to the impression that it was the media that were interested, not the voters.

President Obama specifically said that Mormonism was off the table and that any staffer bringing it on the table would be fired. Romney also kept it off the table in the early days of the campaign. Nor did Romney allow the untrue story that the president was a Muslim to be a part of his campaign. Both were wrongly accused of not being Christians. (Mormons believe each person has the right to decide whether or not he is a Christian and that others cannot make that judgment about someone else. In the end, it is God’s decision.) Both candidates carefully avoided the subject of religion—their own or that of their opponent. Later in the campaign, as pressure grew for them to discuss religion, both did. Romney gave a speech about his religion that was meant to be similar to one given by John Kennedy, who had to combat religious prejudice against Catholics in his own campaign, and the president addressed his religion in interviews.

There were independent campaigners who brought the religions of both candidates into the campaign, even though neither candidate went after the other’s religion. Many hoped to use the religions of the two candidates—both real and imagined—to hurt the candidate they did not support.

During this time, campaigners and even some media commentators began examining Mormonism and its potential impact on a president. Everything from polygamy (which ended more than 100 years ago, so hardly relevant today) to official Mormon stances on issues such as gay marriage or immigration were evaluated. Although many of Romney’s platform items did not align to teachings of Mormon leaders, and many other important issues were not matters of church doctrine at all, commentators and opponents continued to suggest that as president, he would take orders directly from the Mormon prophet. This same accusation was leveraged against John Kennedy. Opponents suggested Kennedy would have a hotline set up to provide direct communication from the Pope, who would secretly run the country. This, of course, was nonsense and did not happen, nor did Kennedy align his politics to his faith. The same was said of Mitt Romney, despite evidence that he did not take direction from his church as governor.

During this time, some reporters began to notice there was a great deal of political diversity among Mormon politicians. Frequent comparisons were made between Romney and Harry Reid. Reid, a Democrat, is the Senate Majority Leader. Despite both being Mormons in good standing, they were nearly always at odds with each other politically. This helped some reporters and those who followed the issue become aware that Mormons do not automatically use church doctrine to make political decisions or think alike in all areas.

The Media and Mormonism during Romney’s Campaign

Early coverage of Mormonism in the campaign contained many errors. Some reporters initially confused mainstream Mormons with the FLDS, a group that uses the name “Mormon” but is not and never was a part of the official church. This group practices polygamy. Today, any real Mormon — a member of The Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — practicing polygamy, even in countries where it is legal, is excommunicated. Many wrote the name of the Church incorrectly. Readers often saw Romney’s faith referred to as “The Church of Latter-day Saints” or “The Mormon Church.” The Church instituted a stepped-up public relations program, not to help Mitt Romney, since the Church does not engage in partisan politics, but to increase accurate knowledge of the Church for those writing about it. Individual members also stepped up to help with the “Mormon Moment” and began sharing information about their faith. Reporters who wrote newspaper and blog articles that contained incorrect information were quickly corrected by church members. These members, acting on their own by posting corrections in the comments or by emailing reporters, helped reporters learn how to write about Mormonism.

Today, most reporters are far more accurate in their portrayal of Mormons. They have learned the basics of Mormonism out of necessity, and their increased knowledge has improved coverage overall, even a year after the campaign. This is one important benefit of the campaign.

Because the campaign stretched on for such a long time, reporters found they had quickly exhausted the usual material—Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, temples, polygamy, and Christianity. They had to search deeper into the faith to find new material. This led them to research the Church’s humanitarian efforts, their tradition of caring for their own, the emphasis on family, the lay structure of the Church, the reasons Mormonism produces so many leaders, and even how a Mormon would impact what food and drink was served in the White House. While some explorations were trivial, some media coverage gave readers and viewers a better range of understanding of modern Mormonism. In the past, so much coverage had been focused on the historical church that little was known about ordinary, everyday Mormons who weren’t pop stars or athletes. Those who were curious were introduced to how the Mormons function in  today’s Church of Jesus Christ, which has some significant differences from the pioneer church.

Impact of Romney’s Religion on Voting Patterns

While a great deal of information was available to those who were interested in Mitt Romney’s religion, studies done immediately after the election demonstrated that on the whole, Americans didn’t pay as much attention to his religion as did the media.

Benjamin Knoll, Assistant Professor of Politics, Centre College, wrote a recent analysis of whether or not anti-Mormonism was the primary cause of Romney’s loss. After doing a statistical analysis, he concluded that it was not a serious factor. (See Benjamin Knoll, Did Anti-Mormonism Cost Mitt Romney the 2012 Election?, Huffington Post, 10/18/2013.) A feeling thermometer done by the 2012 American National Election Study asked people how they felt about Mormons on a scale of 0-100, with 100 being the most positive. Almost half rated Mormons at 50, meaning they were essentially neutral on the subject.  Just more than half knew Mormons are Christians. Only 53 percent of all people surveyed actually knew a Mormon (and studies have shown that knowing a Mormon personally increases positive views on the religion). Only 23 percent knew more than one Mormon.

Knoll’s review of various studies showed that about 5 percent of Republicans who thought Romney was not Christian were less likely to vote for him. However, polls also showed that most of those people did not vote at all. Religious, racial, or party prejudices simply made them stay home. Only a small number voted Democrat as a result of their incorrect belief. Democrats who thought Romney was not Christian were only 2.5 percent less likely to vote for him. There were, naturally, far fewer Democrats who would have voted for him anyway.

Knoll’s evaluation of the feeling thermometer showed that a person’s feelings about Mormons (in terms of Mormons as people, not Mormonism as a religion) did not seem to impact whether or not people voted for Romney, in part, perhaps because so many never knew he was a Mormon.

Impact of the Mormon Moment on Mormons

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently reached 15 million members. Membership is growing, so the in-depth analysis of Mormonism by the media did not have a negative impact. On the other hand, it did not dramatically increase baptisms, either. Studies have shown that most people do not feel they became more knowledgeable about the Mormons during the campaign, despite the extensive attention given to Mormonism.

On the other hand, Mormons increased their personal public discussions of the Church on their blogs and social media accounts. They became more skilled at talking about their faith and at answering questions. Because more Mormons are now blogging and posting about their faith, the amount of accurate information available to seekers has increased. This, over time, leads to more people learning accurate information about Mormonism because they sought information and found real Mormons who could provide it or because they happened to learn something while following that person for another reason.

Although in the early years of Mormonism, entire congregations of seekers would often convert together, today’s Mormonism tends to focus on reaching one person at a time. Most Mormons first convert after meeting a real Mormon and wanting to know what makes that person different or after reading something online that makes them curious. Sincere conversions are more important than large numbers of conversions.

Michael Otterson, head of the world-wide public affairs program for the Mormons, wrote a retrospective soon after the election ended. He wrote:

“More visibility is not necessarily the same as increased understanding. In reality, a presidential election campaign is probably the worst time to try to educate and inform, because politics by its nature is divisive and often shrill. Many people are ready to believe the worst if it comports with their political leanings. But with the heat and divisiveness of a political campaign behind us, thoughtful Mormons can now look to the possibility of having more serious discussions with others about our faith, and especially about how our theology translates into the way we live” (Michael Otterson, What lies ahead for the Mormons?, Washington Post, 11/08/2012)

mitt romney mormonIn the past year, the Mormons, a bit tired from the long campaign, have returned to normal life. They continue to write and to share their faith. Missionaries of both genders are now sent out at a younger age, and as a result, there are many more missionaries teaching the faith to others than there were during the campaign. This was not a result of the Romney campaign, however, but simply addressed the need for more missionaries and to make it easier for missionaries to take a break from secular life to serve God full time for a few years. Of course, the addition of more young missionaries meant that additional older missionaries were needed as well, since they often serve in positions supervising young missionaries. More than 80,000 missionaries are currently serving worldwide and the numbers of young women serving has doubled in the past year.

Other work has continued. The Mormons have continued to strengthen the traditional family, to participate in world-wide humanitarian work, and to fight to protect religious freedom. It is the work they have always done.

From time to time, the Mormons face unexpected attention from the world—through political campaigns, a Broadway play, the fame of a specific member—and they react accordingly. For most Mormons, though, the focus isn’t on those moments. They certainly take advantage of the opportunities, but they don’t change their core mission when the attention comes. Their goal always has been and always will be to share and exemplify the divine mission of the Savior Jesus Christ.

While Mitt Romney’s campaign has ended, now that the “glass ceiling” has been lifted and Mormons are accepted as candidates, it is likely this will happen again. Other Mormons will run for president, win scientific or humanitarian awards, come into the limelight, or somehow draw attention to the Church. When that happens, the Mormons will be happy to share what it all means—but their eternal mission will continue uninterrupted.

Learn more about the core of Mormonism.

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