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Will the Mormon Church’s Attempts to Stay “Apolitical” Send the Opposite Message?

Last month, a Gallup poll indicated some trouble for Mormon presidential candidates: 22 percent of respondents said they would not vote for a Mormon. And this time, the main problem was not among conservative evangelicals–as was once thought–but among self-identified Democrats, where the anti-Mormon bigotry was most pronounced.

Today, the Wall Street Journal has a fascinating article laying out the Mormon Church’s strategy for the current campaign, in which two candidates–Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney–are members of the LDS Church:

“We not only don’t want to cross the line” between religion and politics, Michael Purdy, director of the church’s media relations office, said in an interview at church headquarters here. “We don’t want to go anywhere near the line.”

And that means being actively apolitical. In contrast to its relatively quiescent approach in 2008 when Romney ran for president, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is going on the offensive, aiming to swiftly counter anti-Mormon political arguments and push back against what it considers unfair portrayals of the faith.

The article also notes the Church will bar permanent employees and their wives from participating in the campaign, which will to some degree undermine the fundraising of the Mormon candidates. But this line the Church plans to walk–not supporting Mormon candidates but pushing back against anti-Mormon bias that emerges during the campaign–is bound to get blurred. When a presidential candidate is not Protestant, he is often taken as a representative of his faith. This is less of an obstacle for Catholics and Jews, who are familiar enough to the greater population they don’t usually need to worry about being the only Catholic or Jew voters will be acquainted with.

But that is not necessarily the case with Mormons, which is perhaps one reason Gallup found that 7 percent of respondents wouldn’t vote for a Catholic and 9 percent wouldn’t vote for a Jewish candidate–numbers significantly lower than those who say they won’t vote for a Mormon.

But more problematically, what happens in a general election if Romney is the Republican nominee? President Obama was, as a candidate, shockingly negative. (It is still difficult to imagine Obama was shameless enough to make an ad like this, which would have made Nixon or Kennedy blush and which inspired a defense of McCain from a vice president of La Raza.) When the inevitable attempts to summon this far-too-prevalent anti-Mormon prejudice provoke a response from the Church, won’t they be seen as defending Romney, first and foremost?

It may not be fair, but the Church is going to have a difficult time separating its own public relations work from that of the Romney campaign–at least as voters see it.


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