Romney declined and, according to Prince, explained, “We have made the determination that this issue will go away.”
As Romney’s political star has risen, so has interest in Mormonism. That creates complications for the campaign, but it also presents opportunities and potential pitfalls for the church.
“We obviously think it is fair game to talk about how religion contributes to someone’s character, to their worldview perhaps, and what policy they would have as president,” said Michael Purdy, media relations director for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has declared that it will stay neutral in the race. “But there are some things that seem to have gone too far.”
The church’s concern is that with a Mormon nominee, coverage of the religion’s tenets is “wrapped up in a political story,” as Purdy put it. As a result, more peculiar pieces of the Mormon belief system can and have been cherry-picked as ammunition by political enemies, or a hostile press, to damage the candidate or the church.
Purdy also said that, as a relatively young religion, Mormonism does not enjoy the authenticating quality of antiquity. Because it came of age in a modern time, its theology and saintly visitations can strike people as stranger than those of older religions shrouded by centuries.
As for Romney, church officials said it is up to the candidate how much he divulges about his beliefs and his role within the church. “But it is a matter of public record that he served as a Mormon bishop and a stake president, which is somewhat a larger responsibility,” said Michael Otterson, the church’s head of worldwide public affairs. “It is up to him to decide if he wants to talk about that.”
Asked whether it was inappropriate to discuss Joseph Smith and the core beliefs of Mormonism in connection with Romney’s time as a leader in the church, Otterson said: “We’re very excited about Joseph Smith; it is absolutely core to us. But how to do that in the context of this kind of reporting? . . . It would just seem to me that you would want to run a sidebar.”
Mason, the expert in anti-Mormon history, said there is certainly a danger of bad-faith media attacks on Mormonism through Romney, or vice versa. But he also said Romney has a rare opportunity to take advantage of the interest in his church to educate the country about the faith that has shaped him.
“If they chose, this could be a great teachable moment,” he said of Romney and his aides. “But to do that, it would force them to go onto territory that would be unpopular.”
Many of Romney’s supporters, and even some of his former opponents, have advised against it.
“I would not recommend that,” said former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who beat Romney in the 2008 Iowa caucusesand once had to apologize to his rival for asking if Mormons believed that “Jesus and the devil are brothers.” “For the same reason that a Pentecostal goes out and says, ‘This is what I believe about speaking in tongues’ to a nonbeliever, they are not going to get that. They are going to think, ‘Gosh, that’s something I don’t understand.’ If a person talks about when they pray they really hear God speaking to them, that spooks some people, that just creeps them out. They don’t get it.”
Beyond other churchgoers’ reservations about their faith, many Mormons are wary about the assault the religion might come under from the secular left. Maher, the HBO comedian — who has given $1 million to a pro-Obama super PAC — has reinforced that fear by repeatedly calling Mormonism a “cult.”
It is understandable that the Romney campaign would be sensitive to such criticism. But its guard is likewise up against biographical descriptions of the candidate’s life in the church.
In her e-mail, Saul, the campaign spokeswoman, combed through last fall’s Post story and substituted every reference to Mormonism and the Mormon Church, producing more Semitic-flavored sentences about a “young synagogue leader named Mitt Romney,” and “a group of devout but independent Jew women” who all belonged to “the Synagogue of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Her version observed that Romney “was far from the only young and brilliant Jew on Harvard’s campus” and ended with one devout woman’s trip to “the Jew Temple in neighboring Belmont, where she performs proxy baptisms for the deceased and other synagogue rites.”
Speaking to an audience at BYU in October, Lieberman said that if Romney became the nominee, “he’s going to have to educate people about the Mormon faith.” Romney’s emphasis on faith, such as at Liberty University last month, might speed that process up. “If a candidate of his own initiative speaks about something like that,” Lieberman said in the interview, “they may be asked questions about it.”
Jason Horowitz covers politics for The Washington Post.
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