The Mormon Church’s press office is allowing itself a brief sigh of relief.
"Overall we’re relatively pleased,” Michael Otterson, the head of worldwide public affairs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in his office on the eve of Election Day. “Plenty of exceptions, but we are relatively pleased that we got through this campaign without the church being dragged into the middle of politics."
Ever since Mitt Romney started running for president nearly six years ago, the second floor office of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building has acted as the church’s frontline against media coverage that reflected badly upon, or wildly distorted, the church’s image.
“For people like us it’s been incredibly intense because of all the media interest,” Otterson said.
Otterson was joined in his office, decorated sparsely with framed magazine covers headlined “Mormons” and “The Mormons,” by Michael Purdy, another spokesman for the church who also wore a white shirt and tie. They gave themselves good marks for effectively establishing the church’s neutrality for what was at first a skeptical media. And in the last six months they have noticed a shift in interest from "what Mormons believe," which they view as problematic and conflict focused, to "what Mormons do," which they think has given them a chance to showcase their faith’s emphasis on good works and charity.
“It’s been striking how many media have picked up on that theme over the last few months,” Otterson said.
For years the Mormon Church has insisted that it be permitted to define itself and speak in its own words. So on this, the day that the country could very well elect its first Mormon president, here in full are the reflections and assessments of the church’s mouthpieces.
Q. Had the last year been a positive experience for the press office and church?
OTTERSON: “In the last six months it has in this respect, this is really important: If you go back, and we have lived with this now for – six years or something – we have seen a real transition. I think it is fair to say that in the very beginning of the previous election campaign, which was more short-lived, of course, many of us were kind of surprised by the degree of misunderstanding that was out there. I think a lot of Latter-day Saints who have just been used to living their lives were unaware of how much latent – partly prejudice – but latent misunderstanding there was out there in the community, until we saw it rise with the first campaign.
“And I think it kind of took us aback. Gradually as we got into the second campaign we saw the same kind of narrative develop and it was often things like, ‘Well, OK, Mormons are different so what do they believe that’s different and let’s talk about those differences.’ And everything became about how other Mormons were. Here are the beliefs you may not be familiar with translated as kind of strange weird things that Mormons believe. And it took a long time to get beyond that.
“But there was a turning point, sometimes in maybe the last nine months, particularly in the last six months, when media started to ask more questions about what do Mormons actually do, how do they live their lives, what is different about the community? And that was a conversation that made a lot more sense to us, because any religion tends to shape the behavior of its adherents for the better. And frankly, Mormons do that very well. There is a very direct correlation between having a belief and not being passive about it. It should motivate you to do differently.”
“It’s been striking how many media have picked up on that theme over the last few months. Part of that ... has been a lot of journalists have started to go to church, to visit the churches…We think the conversation about what difference does it make in your life is a much more productive conversation to have.”
PURDY: “After a while you are kind of being defined by these things that as a member of the faith you think that doesn’t correlate to me at all.” He said that “people are getting a clearer picture of what Mormonism is at its core rather than what are these little things I hear out in the ether that other people have tried to use to define us.”
Q: What would the possible election of Romney mean for the perception of the church?
OTTERSON: “Regardless of who wins the election tomorrow, we’ve got to acknowledge that the church is in a different place than it was a couple of years ago.
“I still think it’s very important to recognize that the church has no interest in political leverage or influence. Neutrality has been very well established. Whether or not there is a Latter-day Saint in the White House that doesn’t change, the church’s mission is what it has always been to preach the gospel in 170 different countries. So that doesn’t change for the church. And I think it really is surprising for people to learn that the church leadership really hasn’t been focused on this at all. They have been doing what they always do. We have 58,000 missionaries out there doing what they always do. The election is completely irrelevant to 99.9 percent of the church’s work. For people like us it’s been incredibly intense because of all the media interest.
"For us this has really been an opportunity to really depict who we are. The opportunity to set aside some of the longstanding misunderstandings, more misunderstandings and lack of education than prejudice.”
PURDY: “There’s a natural tendency to think that when there’s that opportunity, an institution is looking at it as how can we maximize this opportunity. How do we leverage. “ [Purdy said that wasn’t the case, and the church had demonstrated it wasn’t the case.] “I think we have done well. The neutrality seems to be a given. People understand that now. That’s a great thing. It’s a great thing when people are asking questions, when you are replacing misperceptions with fact. When you are having a conversation and understanding each other. That’s a good thing for everybody.”
Q. But how would things change if Romney were president on Wednesday?
OTTERSON: “I’ve been trying to think about that question, about how we would feel the next morning depending on what the result is, I don’t know if I can answer the question. If Mitt Romney doesn’t win, Latter-day Saints will still feel that the church has moved to a place – I’m going to use the term mainstream acceptance. In that we hope we are recognized now as a legitimate part of society, a contributing part of society, along with the rich mosaic and tapestry of all the other religious faiths in this country. But we have arrived in that place, no question about that.
“Now regardless of who occupies the White House, we’re in that position right now. But there is an important caveat to that. Latter-day saints want to be a part of the mainstream in that they want to be recognized and accepted for who they are without apology, but they don’t want to be seen as just another church. And the reason that we are growing, we think, is because of those distinctive elements. We don’t want to be part of the sort of amorphous mass, we want to stand out. So you’ve always got this natural dynamic tension within the Latter-day Saint faith. The scriptures describe this phenomenon of being a ‘peculiar people.’”
Q. But wouldn’t people be rejoicing here?
OTTERSON: “Regardless of your politics you rejoiced four years ago that the glass ceiling was shattered with the election of an African American president. Politics aside, I think everyone felt … I felt the same way, ‘Wow, that is a statement.’ If we had a woman president I think we would feel the same way, and perhaps we feel the same way with a minority religion. Maybe when Jack Kennedy was elected we felt the same way. It’s yet another symbol of the pluralism and the diversity that the United States has become. And that’s a good thing from I think anyone’s perspective. “
Are things only going to get tougher for the press office if Romney is elected?
OTTERSON: “Even if there were a Mormon president, the church would still want to keep its independence and its distance, so that there was no misunderstanding.” [He explained why.] “Any president is going to make decisions which can be highly controversial and you make those decisions of course completely independent of the church. So we wouldn’t want to be pulled into taking either credit or the blame.”
Q. This reverts back to the idea that the church’s core mission is growing the faithful, and that too close an association with a potential President Romney could be unhelpful for the church. Is it more problematic that Romney is a Republican, and that many people viewed the church as monolithically Republican, which could hurt outreach efforts to Democrats?
OTTERSON: “It is a big country, but the church is a big tent. We already have prominent Democrats. The church leadership is going to be careful to make sure that its main message remains universal.”
[Taking a more global perspective, he noted that the politics associated with church members changed outside the United States.] “As you move into other countries you don’t get that same conservative bent.”
The Mormon Moment? If Romney is elected, this actually wasn’t the Mormon Moment, was it?
PURDY: “I think we push back a little against this idea that it’s a moment. I think it’s a natural evolution of things that have been building for some time. Some of it’s just natural growth. We’ve reached a size where we are the third or fourth largest church in the country.
“I think we have reached a natural size where if someone asks how does a faith feel about a particular issue, we are in the group, we are going to be asked our opinion. And then there are events that have put us in the spotlight a little bit.”
OTTERSON [smiling, referring to the Mormons on reality shows, the Book of Mormon musical on Broadway, the Mormon author of the Twilight series.] “You keep seeing these Mormons crop up everywhere. It’s a feature of size.”
“If Romney gets elected, well this wasn’t the moment. It isn’t the moment anyway, this is simply a transition and an evolution to a level of acceptance. I don’t see how you can turn that clock back."
Q: So mostly no sign of ugly attacks and religious bias then?
OTTERSON: “We’ve seen it in the last couple of weeks. We’ve seen a couple of things, with Andrew Sullivan’s piece on race. Honestly we’ve just ignored them, because they haven’t gained any traction and that says something I think about Americans. I think the public instinctively knows when something seems unfair. So yeah, I think we got through this relatively well.”