SALT LAKE CITY — “The story began in 1820,” the voice in the headphones exclaimed.
A handful of people taking an audio tour of the Church History Museum here over the weekend followed exhibits, from a stained-glass window depicting the first revelation of “14-year-old farm boy” Joseph Smith, to the printing press that produced the first edition of the Book of Mormon in 1830, to the chair that carpenter Brigham Young built before joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1832. A few steps forward, the awed museumgoers listened to the words of Parley Pratt, a pioneer ancestor of Mitt Romney, as he imagined the establishment of Zion in Ohio, only to walk a few more feet to inspect the weapons used to chase Mormons from state to state and the death mask of the religion’s murdered founder.
A legacy of state-sponsored persecution is embedded in the identity of America’s most successful homegrown religion. In a century of assimilation, the country’s 6 million Mormons have sought to erase from their public image and museum exhibits the polygamy and early beliefs that triggered federal crackdowns. Mormons have become prominent athletes and academics, captains of industry and public officials. But nothing would mark the faith’s place in the American mainstream more than the ascension of one of its own to the presidency of a government that once sought its destruction.
“A people persecuted, denounced and mistreated could suddenly find one of their own in highest office,” said Richard Bushman, a prominent Mormon historian and a predecessor of Romney as the highest Mormon authority in Boston. “To put the nation in the hands of a Latter-day Saint is really the ultimate act of trust.”
If Romney wins, history will likely remember him not as the first private-equity president, but the first Mormon commander in chief. It is a potential accomplishment that says as much about the country’s progress as John F. Kennedy’s distinction as the first Catholic to occupy the Oval Office. Utah, more than Michigan or Massachusetts, is Romney’s spiritual home, and for many Mormons, the view from the precipice here has been dizzying.
“They’re so amped up right now they might as well be drinking coffee,” said Patrick Mason, a professor of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University.
In the days and hours leading up to Election Day, Mormons expressed their anticipation, giddiness and cautious hope that Romney, a former church leader, would make an impact on history’s timeline that would extend and ultimately dwarf the year-long Mormon Moment.
“It would be great. He holds a great power in the priesthood and could bring this nation out of the horrible mess it’s in,” Jewelle Merritt said as she dabbed tears from her eyes. The 59-year-old teacher from Brigham City had just watched “Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration,” a tearjerker — notably cleansed of polygamy — shown in the church’s Legacy Theater about the life and death of the religion’s founder. As she walked into the bright sunshine of Temple Square, she said she never doubted the possibility of a Mormon president. “I was taught growing up that when the nation is hanging by a thread, one of the elders of Israel would come to save it. “
That belief, known among Mormons as the White Horse Prophesy, is officially rejected by the church and has fueled anti-Mormon conspiracy theories that Romney would work to establish a theocracy. The vast majority of Mormons here shared the more familiar pride and apprehension that any minority group on the brink of attaining the presidency might experience.
“He comes from pioneer stock. His grandfather moved to Mexico for the same reason my wife’s grandfather moved to Mexico,” Temple volunteer Jawin Westover, 70, proudly pointed out. (Romney’s ancestors fled to Mexico to practice polygamy.) Under the temple spires, Westover watched as five sets of brides and grooms posed for pictures and blond children climbed over statues of Smith. “It’s a distinctly American culture and it’s the only country that this could happen in. Here’s a big chance to show the world how great he is and how great his membership is.”
Westover paused to squint and smile in the sun. “But,” he said, “what if things go wrong?
The perception Americans and the world have of the church is the chief concern of the hierarchy in Salt Lake City. In recent years, the church has heavily marketed itself as a multiracial, multicultural and exceedingly Everyman faith. It spent millions on an “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign that appeared on billboards and televisions across the country.
In the lobby outside of the church’s public affairs office, in the ornate Joseph Smith Memorial Building, a wall installation highlights the faces of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. Inside the office of Michael Otterson, the church’s head of worldwide communications, magazine covers headlined “Mormons” hang on the wall. Since Romney first ran for president in 2007, Otterson’s office has been caught up in the prolonged Mormon Moment.
Otterson said that whether Romney wins the election or not, “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.” He said that while the church had studiously maintained its political neutrality — and that it would keep its independence and distance “even if there were a Mormon president” — the election had been an important opportunity for the church “to really depict who we are.” In recent weeks Mormon scholars have noticed what they have called a last-ditch effort to use Romney’s religion against him. But Otterson said he hoped a Romney victory would prompt the same celebration of American pluralism that the shattering of other glass ceilings has produced.
Some Mormons have worried that a Republican Mormon president might actually hinder a church whose main objective is branch out to new believers. The hierarchy in Salt Lake is overwhelmingly, but not uniformly, Republican, and except for some notable exceptions, including Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the large majority of Mormons vote Republican. (Romney’s popularity here was likely to cause a Republican landslide down the ticket.)
“The church leadership is going to be careful to make sure that its main message remains universal,” Otterson said.
Orrin G. Hatch, the senior U.S. senator from Utah and himself a Mormon, called the monolithic view of Mormons as Republican “really unfair.” On his way to the conservative stronghold of Provo, the home of Brigham Young University, for a campaign event, he argued that Utah had become so solidly GOP because of disillusionment with liberal ideas. Romney’s election, he said, would historically be viewed as less of a partisan victory than a “blow for religious freedom.”
“Mitt Romney has shown that Mormons are as devoted to this country as much, if not more than, any other group,” said Hatch, who cited a tortured past in which “the government didn’t come to the rescue of the LDS church when people were being killed in Missouri and Illinois and elsewhere. It was as though they didn’t belong.”
For a faith that initially emphasized separation, maintaining an essential distinctiveness while belonging has become key.
Mia Love, a congressional candidate and the mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, appeared in the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign. A Mormon black woman (“We call it the trifecta” said her campaign adviser), she took a break from rallying her volunteers in a room decorated with a Romney cardboard cutout to reflect on the potential for history. “What is great about this country is the fact that people like Barack Obama, people like Mitt Romney, are able to run for president,” said Love, wearing a “Be Calm and Vote Rom” T-shirt. “Anyone can serve, regardless of their race, religion, gender.”
At the mouth of Emigration Canyon, a bronze statue of Brigham Young looks out onto the Salt Lake Valley from atop a towering monument marking the spot where he pronounced, “This is the right place.” Down the road, the members of the Monument Park congregation filed into their church for Sunday services.
Mike Anderson, the congregation’s bishop, paused from counseling a teenage member of the congregation to note that in Detroit and Boston and other cities he has lived in, people have often looked at him as less than normal. “I feel kind of normal,” he joked.
Down the hall, Gae Haynie, the congregation’s 81-year-old librarian, sorted papers under portraits of past and present church prophets, baptism scenes and paintings of Joseph Smith. “We have risen from tough times,” she said. “They hated us. And look what we have now.”