One morning last week, as the GOP presidential drama roared down the Eastern Seaboard toward South Carolina, Michelle Swails saw something encouraging on the local TV news.
A reporter downstate in Charleston had assembled congregants from a big local evangelical church and was posing questions, including this one: Do you think Mormons are Christians?
“About four people raised their hands, which to me was a pretty decent number,” said Swails, a jovial wife and mother who owns a gym and is head of the women’s auxiliary at the Mormon church in Lugoff, a Columbia suburb. “I mean, this is the Bible Belt.”
With one of their own leading smack in the heart of evangelical America, Mormons here know they are in a moment. South Carolina has a history of crowning Republican presidential nominees, and for a group whose historical narrative is all about persecution, it would feel affirming to see their neighbors vote Mormon.
But Swails’s reaction says a lot.
Her cheeriness is evidence of a common Mormon belief that theirs is a truth so inevitable it will eventually win out. But her low bar also reveals a guardedness that comes from knowing that many of your neighbors think you belong to a cult.
A new poll showed overwhelming support for Romney among Mormons. Among them are wealthy donors who have given him millions. But Mormons here say there’s no obvious evidence of that. The vibe is completely unlike the open cheering among Catholics in the run-up to John F. Kennedy’s securing of the nomination or the euphoria among African Americans for Barack Obama in 2008.
Although religious and political leaders in South Carolina say Romney’s Mormonism won’t be the factor it was even in 2008, no one is taking chances. Unlike last time, when Romney made a historic speech about his faith, this time he’s halting all talk of religion, and church officials are halting all talk of him (or fellow Mormon Jon Huntsman, who has since decided to withdraw from the race).
“In the South especially, there’s this resistance to highlighting our ‘otherness,’ ” said Terryl Givens, a Mormon and religion professor at the University of Richmond. “There is this ambiguity for Mormons when they picture a Mormon president. Do we really want to be mainstreamed? People have said to me, ‘Do we really want the entire image of Mormonism to depend on the performance of one guy?’ ”
Some of the optimism has to do with a cultural change Mormons have felt even since Romney’s last run, when South Carolina Republicans received Christmas cards in 2007 purporting to be from Romney and his wife, Ann, about polygamy.
This time, so far, the Mormon angle seems subdued. The anti-Romney camp has focused mostly on criticizing his record on issues such as health care and gay rights, and a poll of Mormons that was released Thursday said that although prejudice and misperceptions about their faith remain their biggest challenge, they are optimistic that Americans are ready for a Mormon president.
However, there are exceptions. Last month, the president of the state’s Southern Baptist Convention, Brad Atkins, called Romney’s faith a “cause of concern” for evangelicals, who in 2008 made up 60 percent of voters, a much higher proportion than in most primary states.
But later, Atkins’s tone shifted. “What I’ve been saying is that every candidate’s faith will play a role,” he said in an interview.
Scott Huffmon, a political scientist who directs a well-known poll about South Carolina, said he hadn’t heard of any organized effort to focus on Romney’s faith — yet. “I fully expect everything to go wide open. It may start late, but, of course, Mormonism will necessarily be a part of that. I don’t see how it won’t be.”
Mormons here who are asked about the possibility that their home state could solidify the first Mormon presidential nominee usually start with something about how faith shouldn’t be a factor in voting.
This echoes a powerfully hierarchical church whose leaders are so opposed to any mixing of politics and faith that they don’t even allow churches to be used as polling places.
That trickles down to personal conversations.
A group of Mormon men who lunch every Monday at a Columbia sports bar reacted slowly when asked for some typical kitchen-table chat about Romney.
“When we talk about Mitt Romney, we don’t talk about his Mormonism. Why would we?” said Matt Gaskin, 35, who works in information technology for a credit union. A Romney win, he said, would affect Mormons “the way Nixon affected Quakers. Which is to say not at all.”
His lunchmate, David Hatch, who works in contracting for a health-care company, disagreed. “It would be like we finally made it.”
Romney’s campaign is making a calculation in 2012. This time, his advisers say that he isn’t even meeting with faith groups directly and that they have no outreach staff specifically for faith groups. A campaign flier making its rounds last week in South Carolina focused on Romney’s “deep and abiding faith” but never named it.
The reticence is also cultural, said Marie Cornwall, a Mormon sociologist at Brigham Young University. “Mormons are very averse to conflict. You have those kinds of conversations around the table, but only with like-minded people. It’s a politeness thing.”
Although South Carolina is still overwhelmingly Protestant, there are a lot of new immigrants and slowly growing religious minority groups. One-quarter of Mormons nationally are converts, and many people at the Mormon church closest to Lugoff, in Camden, have non-Mormons in their family.
But every person you talk with here has a story: about the warm neighbor who turned cold upon learning of someone’s Mormonism, of visiting a friend’s Baptist church and hearing an anti-Mormon sermon, of a teen whose friends warned him he might go to hell.
Which presents a paradox: As much as Mormons want to be seen as part of the mainstream — that their candidate is just like any other, and by the way, he isn’t their candidate — their faith is deeply rooted in the idea that their faith is different, and true. Even their liturgy depicts this defensiveness, this apartness.
On a recent Sunday, a monthly day for testimonies, person after person took the podium in Camden to say almost the exact same words: The stories in the Book of Mormon aren’t dreams; they really happened. Joseph Smith saw Jesus Christ and the Heavenly Father. He was a true prophet, as is current Church President Thomas S. Monson.
“I know it’s true,” one person after another stood up to say, often breaking into tears.
Swails, who is president of the women’s auxiliary at the Camden church, said she thought it was less likely than in 2008 that Mormonism would be a factor in the presidential race, if only because everyone is so focused on improving the economy.
She is not anxious about Mormonism coming under public scrutiny.
“I guess it is a little weird to turn on the TV and see that kind of thing, to see how people think about you. I mean, would you gather a room full of Mormons and ask what they think about Presbyterians? Would that be socially acceptable?”
“But it’s a little neat, too!”