(MintPress) – As one of the fastest growing religions in the U.S., Mormonism continues to expand its social and political influence. With more than 6 million Americans adhering to the faith and 14 million worldwide, Mormons now represent a considerable voting bloc in both state and nationwide elections.
Although the main branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) abandoned polygamy in the early 20th century, many Americans still view the faith as “cultish” and “anachronistic.” However, as Mormons continue to grow in size, their mainstream influence has begun to take hold in American politics through the help of clever advertising campaigns.
This has translated into growing political clout for the church, including most notably, the Republican party’s nomination of Mitt Romney for president.
Mitt Romney: “I am a Mormon”
Romney is the first member of the Mormon church to win a major party nomination for the presidency. Even if Romney fails to win the election next month, his rise, and the rise of Mormonism in America, shows the overall palatability and influence of this growing branch of Christianity.
Mitt Romney ran for president previously, unsuccessfully, in 2008. During the campaign many of the Republican challengers questioned his faith and his commitments to the base of Republican voters, most of whom are non-Mormon. Being the first of a certain religion, ethnic or racial group to take a leadership role on a national stage can pose challenges.
Much like John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president labeled by critics as a pawn of the Vatican, some critics have similarly accused Romney of subtly subverting his public duty as an elected official and giving special attention to issues that can advance Mormon causes.
Although Mitt Romney has previously said, “If I am fortunate enough to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group.” He and the Mormon church have had to overcome major hurdles in order to gain mainstream acceptance with the American public.
The negative image of Mormonism became such an issue that leaders of the church decided to launch a multimillion dollar ad campaign to combat alleged stereotypes about the faith. In late 2011, with the help of Washington D.C. advertising groups Ogilvy & Mather and Hall & Partners, the LDS church started the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign to show the multi-cultural, “mainstream” face of the church.
Mitt Romney was a Mormon pastor for 10 years, an experience that he believes has helped him understand family and community issues. While not involved directly in the campaign, Romney and his family have made generous annual donations to the church, and at times have occupied senior leadership positions within the LDS hierarchy.
The television, internet and billboard ads featured a single father in New York city, a fashion designer and a professional surfer, among others. The hope for those planning the campaign was to combat the “cultish” and “sexist” labels that non-Mormons most frequently used to describe the religion in focus groups.
The church has continued to struggle with the legacy of racism and segregation. Although Joseph Smith, the founder of the church, opposed slavery in the 1800s, his successor, Bringham Young, banned African-Americans from the priesthood and decried the evils of interracial marriage.
It was not until 1978, long after desegregation, that the Mormon Church performed interracial marriages and allowed African-Americans to enter the priesthood. However, textbooks in Mormon schools continued to recommend same-race marriages until 2011, when the textbooks were updated. According to a section from a Mormon school textbook published last year:
“We recommend that people marry those who are the same racial background generally, and of somewhat the same economic and social and educational background (some of those are not an absolute necessity, but preferred), and above all, the same religious background, without question,” wrote Spencer Kimball, LDS president from 1973-1985 in a textbook.
Mitt and his wife, Ann Romney, have been major supporters of the church for years, giving $1.1 million to the LDS Church in 2011. Although Mitt Romney found nothing “sinful” about interracial marriage when questioned about the topic on the campaign trail in April, the legacy of the church remains a challenge for his campaign and for church leaders attempting to move beyond the unfavorable LDS past.
While there is still prejudice against the faith across the U.S., the ad campaign appears to have helped boost the mainstream appeal of the Mormon faith.
As Americans prepare to head to the polls next month, few voters appear to be concerned about Romney’s faith, as a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Poll finds that just 13 percent of voters are concerned about Romney’s religion and his commitment to maintaining separation of church and state.
White Evangelical Christians, a key constituency in the Republican Party, appear to have largely embraced Romney as their candidate. Romney has received major endorsements from prominent Evangelicals within the Republican Party by making clear to Evangelical conservatives that a vote for Mitt Romney is not a vote endorsing Mormonism, but rather a political move.
Former Arkansas governor and ordained Evangelical minister Mike Huckabee gave his stamp of approval in August, saying, “”Let me clear the air about whether guys like me, an evangelical, would only support an evangelical. Of the four people on the two tickets, the only self-professed evangelical is Barack Obama, and he supports changing the definition of marriage, believes that human life is disposable and expendable.”
Obama has faced his own challenges with defining his faith. In the same Pew Forum poll, 19 percent of respondents were concerned about President Obama’s faith, with 17 percent believing that the president is a Muslim. Although Obama’s father was a Muslim, Obama has publicly declared that he is a Christian.
State politics grow to national politics
While there is no formal Mormon lobby, the influence of the LDS church is palpable in the daily life of those living in the state of Utah, home to the church’s global headquarters in Salt Lake City. Seventy-seven percent of state legislators self-identify as belonging to the Mormon church, according to a questionnaire conducted by the Salt Lake Tribune, a statistic that some believe is lower than actual numbers.
While most Mormons, including Romney have shown public support for maintaining a divide between church and state, the overwhelming composition of Mormon legislators in Utah has translated into strict state controls on the sale of alcohol, gambling, immigration and gay rights, among other issues.
The increasing Mormon political clout is largely due to their sheer growth in numbers. Although they comprise less than 2 percent of the overall U.S. population, the Mormon faith is the fastest growing in America.
According to the 2012 Religious Congregations and Membership study released in May, Mormons outpace all other American religious groups in growth. Although Mainline Protestants and Catholics represent roughly a quarter of the U.S. population respectively, the number of parishioners are in decline.
The Mormon Church has also grown considerably worldwide, particularly in Canada, and Caribbean countries. Currently there are 14 million followers worldwide, with 273,000 converting to the faith in 2010.