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Updated Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 08:31 PM

Romney lost, but his candidacy broke barriers for Mormon church

By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
The New York Times

PROVO, Utah — As a Mormon boy, Daniel Peterson grew up hearing stories about the persecution of his ancestors, beginning with his great-great-great-great-grandfather, who was chased out of Missouri, then Illinois, before he died trekking across the Great Plains to reach Utah.

As a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, he was stunned to discover fellow students talking about his religion behind his back. He said he "felt like a curiosity" when they asked, "Are you really a Mormon?"

And as a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University in Provo, Peterson has been confronted at academic conferences by scholars who "admonish me about the stupidity or the evil of my ways." Once, he was turned down for a speaking engagement when the hosts discovered he was Mormon.

Peterson, 59, did something that seemed wondrous and nearly unthinkable Tuesday: He entered a voting booth and cast his ballot for a Mormon, Mitt Romney, for president.

"I have to say that when he first announced, I thought, 'Not a chance, never going to happen,' " Peterson said of Romney's nomination. "I don't want to sound too triumphalist about it, but Mormons have had a feeling of insecurity about their status in America; we were driven from state to state. I think a lot of us see this as maybe a kind of arrival on the American scene."

Despite Romney's loss to President Obama on Tuesday, the 2012 presidential campaign broke a barrier for Mormons across the U.S., transforming the way they see themselves and the way many Americans view their church, formally called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Romney exposed Americans to some of the virtues of his faith: its emphasis on wholesome living, industriousness and, above all, family. Among fellow Mormons, even some Democrats, his candidacy evoked a range of emotions: pride that one of their own had the White House within his reach, relief that bigotry toward Mormons seemed to be waning, even a bit of wariness about a possible backlash if he won.

"It's a historic moment for Mormons," said Joanna Brooks, chairwoman of the English department at San Diego State University and author of "The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of American Faith."

"Just over a century ago, there was a four-year show trial in the nation's capital about whether Sen. Reed Smoot from the state of Utah was fit to serve in Congress because he was Mormon," she said. "We've just come through a general election in which Romney's faith played virtually no public role."

Here at Romney's alma mater, BYU — a citadel of Mormonism where a bronze statue of Brigham Young, the church's second prophet, stands guard over a sprawling campus nestled at the foot of the Wasatch Range — the College Republicans and College Democrats held a raucous election night watch party.

Most students backed Romney, using words like "cool" and "awesome" to describe his ascent. Yet even an Obama field organizer, Emily Dockery, 19, said the Romney campaign helped Americans "get past the stereotypical" view of Mormons.

Stories of hardship and discrimination are woven into the Mormon fabric; some students have experienced anti-Mormon sentiment while serving on missions overseas, while older professors have faced it in the U.S.

Peterson, whose great-great-great-great-grandfather was a confidant of the church's first prophet, Joseph Smith, vividly remembered his father telling him about a church in their hometown, San Gabriel, Calif., that brought in "a fire-breathing anti-Mormon minister" who warned that Mormons were trying to take over the country. "My father said it really changed his feeling about living in this neighborhood," Peterson said, "that there are people out there who really hate us."

Until close to the end of his campaign, Romney rarely spoke of his faith because he was so concerned that it would hinder his chances, especially among evangelical Christians, a powerful voting bloc in the Republican primaries.

But ultimately, he and his advisers concluded that stories of the good works he had done as a lay leader of the church — ministering to the poor and sick — were a political plus.

But if Mormons are "feeling a kind of validation," in the words of J. Spencer Fluhman, a BYU historian and author of a book on anti-Mormonism, they also were a bit nervous in the days leading up to the election.

Some, including Peterson, worried that Mormons would be blamed if a Romney administration failed, or that Mormon missionaries might become targets for terrorists in nations where Romney policies were unpopular.

Others argued that if Mormons became too mainstream, they would lose the sense that they were special and separate and chosen by God — "a peculiar people," as Mormons call themselves.

"Part of the struggle is that Mormons have very distinctive beliefs and behaviors: avoiding alcohol and coffee, the high level of church participation and a theology that puts us on the outs with some of mainstream Christianity," said Quin Monson, an associate professor of political science at the university. "So how does a group that has historically been so different achieve widespread acceptance without losing its distinctiveness?"

Yet as the campaign drew to a close, Mormons in Utah indulged themselves by wondering what a Romney White House might look like. Would Ann Romney stock the White House with a year's supply of food and emergency essentials, as the church counsels? Would Romney attend sacred temple ceremonies closed to non-Mormons, and if so, would he need Secret Service agents with a "temple recommend," the seal that allows faithful Mormons to enter?

At a time Mormonism has found a place in popular culture — the musical "The Book of Mormon" continued to be a hit on Broadway this year — polls have shown relatively little voter unease with Romney's faith. A Pew Research Center survey, released in July, found that among voters who knew of Romney's religion, roughly 8 of 10 were either comfortable with it or said it did not matter.

In part, Romney laid the groundwork for himself in 2008. Former Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, who campaigned for Romney that year, said he was "stunned" to "discover the depth of anti-Mormon feeling." This time around, when a Texas pastor in October 2011 called Mormonism "a cult," he was roundly rebuked.

Within Mormonism, there is a strain of folklore that attributes to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young predictions that one day the Constitution would be "hanging by a thread" and a Latter-day Saint would save it. The prophecy is not official church doctrine, but it did come up in conversation.

About 75 percent of Mormons are also Republicans; his backers in Utah insist they voted for him because of his policies, not his faith. But Mormons tend to feel a bond with one another; that emotional tie — and the fact that Romney is so openly devout — also played a role.

Kayla Condie, a Brigham Young senior, said Romney's faith made her "feel like I can trust him more. We learned the same things; we grew up with the same values. I believe he's raising his family the way I would want to raise mine."

Peterson has that sense of connection, too. He has never met Romney, but knows people who know him. On Wednesday morning, his disappointment was obvious. Still, he felt that even though Romney had lost, the church, which remained assiduously neutral in the race, had won.

"I don't know whether the Mormon moment ends with Romney's presidential aspirations, it may well," he said. "But I doubt that we will ever go into the state of complete obscurity that we were in before."


MATTHEW RYAN WILLIAMS / NYT
Joanna Brooks, an author and a Mormon English professor at San Diego State University, noted: "We've just come through a general election in which Romney's faith played virtually no public role."




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