Will Romney, Huntsman help or hurt Mormons?

February 11, 2011

c. 2011 Salt Lake Tribune

SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) Amid the prospect of presidential runs by Jon
Huntsman Jr. and Mitt Romney, reporters are bombarding the Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with calls about the potential
candidates and their Mormon faith.

So much so, in fact, that the Utah-based LDS Church decided it
needed to reiterate its longstanding stance of political neutrality.

"The church is strictly neutral in matters of party politics and
will not comment at all on the personalities and platforms of
candidates, whether or not they are members of the church and
irrespective of their party affiliation," the church said in a statement
released Feb. 1.

The novelty of two high-profile Mormons possibly competing for the
nation's highest office guarantees the 14 million-member faith a place
in the national spotlight. But experts are divided about whether that
would help or hurt the church and how much of a factor Mormonism would
be in either potential campaign.

"In the long run, it would be good for the church," said David
Campbell, a political scientist at the University Notre Dame and a
Mormon.

"It would mean we were entering the mainstream of American society.
After all, we would have not just one but two candidates -- plus Harry
Reid (the Senate majority leader, a Democrat from Nevada)."

Campbell said a run by Huntsman -- who's stepping down as U.S.
ambassador to China -- would "totally change the dynamic of the way
Mormonism is discussed."

For example, if Republicans Huntsman and Romney disagreed about
issues, as they no doubt would, that would undermine the view that
"Mormonism is monolithic, that members all march in lockstep," said
Campbell, co-author of "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites
Us."

Campbell and co-author Robert Putnam collected data in 2007 and 2008
ranking Mormonism among the nation's least-popular faiths.

Romney's first run at the White House "did not change attitudes
toward Mormons, either among those who liked him or didn't," Campbell
said. "Attitudes about Mormonism were fixed."

John Green, an expert in religion and politics at the University of
Akron in Ohio, agreed.

"If we have two Mormon candidates in the race, (Mormonism) becomes
less of an anomaly," Green said. "You may see somewhat greater
acceptance (of Mormons) on the part of the general public."

Still, though the political context may have changed from the 2008
campaign, he said, the same underlying attitudes that created
difficulties for Romney remain.

Mormonism continues to be among the least popular religions in
America, Green said, and white evangelical Protestants -- a force in the
GOP -- view the faith's doctrines with suspicion and its missionaries as
"competitors" for converts.

White evangelicals are especially influential in states such as
South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, Green said, and would pose a large
hurdle for any Mormon candidate.

Huntsman, who has described himself as not "overly religious," may
face different opposition from Americans, especially Republicans, Green
said, "who like religious candidates who take their faith seriously."

Kelly Patterson, a Brigham Young University political scientist, is
more optimistic about his church and possible Mormon candidates.

Patterson acknowledged that religion played heavily in the previous
Romney campaign, partly because the former Massachusetts governor
portrayed himself as a religious individual.

With that strategy, Romney invited some of the scrutiny of his
faith, Patterson said. "The second time around, it won't be as
important."

Politicians such as Romney can be very "adaptive," he said. They
learn how to frame issues in different ways and often do a better job of
controlling the narrative. Over time, constituents come to feel more
comfortable with those candidates and trust them more.

"Clearly, with some elements of the Republican Party and the media,"
Patterson said, "there is a level of familiarity and understanding of
Mormonism that didn't exist in 2008 cycle."

The BYU political scientist wonders if Romney will follow a similar
strategy in a 2012 campaign -- and if Huntsman learned anything by
watching him.

"Jon Huntsman may not want money and volunteers from the LDS
community like Gov. Romney had," Patterson said. "He may identify an
entirely different set of core supporters."