Two of the most prominent Republican candidates for president happen to be Mormon, but that doesn’t mean the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has some sort of political agenda, it would like everyone to know. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Mormon Church is going out of its way to discourage the idea that it somehow is mysteriously pulling strings for Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman (who are both “Running for Grown-up,” as John Heilemann put it in New York this week). The Church has formally banned its 400 or so employees from contributing to political campaigns, for instance.
And yet combating the idea of the church-as-political-puppeteer means some aggressive promotion of the faith itself: In the 2008 primary, when Romney first ran for president, the church ignored chatter that the nation wasn’t ready to elect someone from such a non-mainstream faith; this time, it will actively try to combat the perception that Mormonism is weird, which, unavoidably, looks a little like campaigning on behalf of Romney and Huntsman.
“We now have two Latter Day Saints running, and the potential for misunderstanding or missteps is therefore twice what it was before,” Michael Otterson, the LDS’s managing director for public affairs, said. Earlier this month, Mr. Otterson used a blog post to challenge opponents who label the LDS a “cult”—even before that charge had surfaced. …
One recent poll found that 36 percent of voters were “uncomfortable” with voting for a Mormon, a fairly high percentage that opponents playing dirty might try to take advantage of. Already, Herman Cain has feinted in that direction, telling reporters Romney’s religion “is an issue with a lot of southerners.” And when a Memphis Fox News reporter asked voters if they knew Romney ascribed to the LDS belief that the Garden of Eden is in Missouri, the Church demanded airtime for a response and description of their beliefs. (They got it.)
There is a long history of Mormon politicians, going all the way back to Joseph Smith himself (killed while running for president, in fact), up through Romney and Harry Reid. The church has also not shied away from active financial involvement on certain issues in recent years (like gay marriage, for instance). But the GOP race is certainly the most high-profile stage on which Mormonism will play such a central role.
Oh wait, no, that would be the Eugene O’Neill Theater.