America's first Mormon president?

The Church of the Latter-day Saints is one of the fastest-growing and wealthiest religions in the world. But can the Mormons convince America to vote one of their number into the White House?

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A statue of the angel Moroni gazes triumphantly over Salt Lake City. Covered in gold leaf and clutching a bugle, he glistens amid an identikit cluster of skyscrapers and fast-food outlets of Utah's largest metropolis. His celestial perch is atop the 68-metre-tall spire of a vast temple built to glorify a God who is worshiped by 60 per cent of the state's almost three million residents, about 2 per cent of Americans and a total of more than 14 million devout men and women in about 170 countries.

Salt Lake City is the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose worshippers are better known as Mormons. It is one of the world's wealthiest and fastest-growing religions, baptising new members in scores of countries at a rate of 400,000 a year. Moroni's vantage point, the Salt Lake Temple, is the Church's equivalent of Mecca or the Vatican. At night, bathed in floodlight, the building's pale granite walls become luminescent, turning the 160-year-old landmark into a beacon of unbending faith that can be seen for miles.

But a better-known white building could soon flicker on this angel's horizon: the big one, in Washington DC, which is home to the most powerful man in the world. With 18 months until the United States selects its next president, two of the top three contenders for the Republican nomination also happen to be Latter-day Saints (LDS).

One is Mitt Romney, the front-running former governor of Massachusetts, who was to formally announce his candidacy today. The other is Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah who is also a former US ambassador to China and perhaps the "dark horse" in an underwhelming field.

Their challenge raises two intriguing questions: is America ready to elect its first Mormon president? And if so, should we care? Utah is the best place to find out. A remote, beautiful state on the western edge of the Rocky Mountains, it was settled by LDS Church pioneers in the 1840s and to this day marches to the beat of the church's socially conservative drum. Tourists who visit its famous ski resorts enjoy some of the world's fluffiest snow, but must endure some of the strictest alcohol laws outside a Muslim nation. Students who pass through many of its universities are required to sign binding contracts forswearing sexual intimacy. Sightseers at Salt Lake Temple encounter wide-eyed missionaries who make not-too-subtle efforts to convert them. It is a quirky corner of the world.

The LDS Church was founded in the 1830s by Joseph Smith, a self-proclaimed prophet who practiced polygamy and stood for president on a ticket that included the abolition of slavery. Given that at least two of his 30 wives were aged 14 at the time of their weddings, he was also (by modern standards) a paedophile. Today, church members adhere to a strict moral code laid out in the Doctrine and Covenants, a scripture Smith claimed was dictated by God to a selection of the religion's founders. It was first published in 1835, about nine years before Smith's death at the hands of an angry mob. The covenants are big on family values, censorious about sex and require followers to give 10 per cent of their income (before tax) to the church.

Critics of Smith, including many evangelical Christians, have described him as one of history's great conmen. If you Google "Mormon" and "cult", you get 2.75 million hits. While the church accepts that it sometimes gets "put in the weird box", it reacts robustly to criticism. Latter-day Saints are very much Christian, says Michael Otterson, a spokesman for the church. They believe in Jesus and share core beliefs with mainstream Protestants and Catholics. To combat public ignorance about the LDS community, the church talks up it celebrity members and broadcasts TV adverts in which everyday working folk proclaim proudly: "I'm a Mormon!"

"There's been an awful lot of national conversation about Mormons," Otterson says, citing, among other things, the surprisingly affectionate new Broadway musical about the religion by the creators of South Park.

"You've now got a lot of prominent Latter-day Saints in the arts and business community... you've got Brandon Flowers [lead singer of The Killers]. You've got Stephanie Meyer, who wrote the Twilight books. There's just a lot of Mormons out there." Then there were The Osmonds and a string of recent reality-TV stars, including American Idol's David Archuleta.

Outside popular culture, Mormons have in recent years also become one of the most influential faith groups in US politics (an issue the church is unwilling to discuss). Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, is one. So is Glenn Beck, the chalkboard-scrawling Fox News host who last year attracted tens of thousands of fans to a weird, quasi-religious rally in Washington. Not long ago, members of the LDS Church funded a successful effort to ban gay marriage in California and wrote controversial laws cracking down on illegal immigrants in Arizona.

If the bookies' odds are right, there is currently more than a 50-50 chance that a Mormon will next November be attempting to unseat Barack Obama. First, though, Romney or Huntsman must win the Republican nomination. That's a big task. Faith has, until now, been a side issue in a race dominated by the economy, healthcare, Obama's birth certificate and assorted obsessions of the Tea Party faithful. But that won't last. Once primary season is in sight, contenders must pitch for the support of the so-called religious right, a demographic which has historically been hugely hostile towards LDS candidates. The good people of Utah are watching with interest.

"Do I think a Mormon can win? The short answer is yes," says Quin Monson, a Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University, a school in Utah which is owned by the LDS Church. "But it all depends on context. In other words, it depends who the Mormon is and who else is running. Clearly both Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have a chance. But it's early. A lot will rest on how they cope when the issue starts to attract attention."

Paul Pugmire, a prominent Utah Democrat and observant Mormon, admits the faith has been a "hindrance" to other would-be LDS presidents such as Orrin Hatch (who stood in 2000), Mo Udall (1976) and Romney's father, George (1968). But Pugmire does not consider it insurmountable.

"In the past, people said a Catholic couldn't be president and John Kennedy proved that wrong," he says. "Then they said a divorced person couldn't be president, and Ronald Reagan proved that wrong. Then they said an African American couldn't win. So what's next? A woman? I believe that will happen. So then you look at other barriers. And you find religious minorities, like us."

History suggests the barrier will be sturdy. It certainly was last time. In January 2008, Romney was the clear favourite to win the Republican nomination. Then his rivals, led by Mike Huckabee, began attacking his faith. In a profile in The New York Times Magazine, Huckabee was quoted wondering whether Mormons "believe Jesus and the Devil are brothers". Shortly afterwards, he took out TV adverts emphasising his credentials as a belt-and-braces "Christian Leader". The voters of Iowa took the bait, handing Huckabee victory by 34 to 25 per cent. Romney's stock never recovered.

This time around, Huckabee isn't running. But in a race that can hinge on tiny swings in voter sentiment, the landscape remains tricky for the LDS Church members. One poll, by the Pew Research Centre, suggests that one in four Americans is less likely to support a candidate who is Mormon. Rasmussen reckons only 38 per cent of voters would seriously consider supporting one. That makes them the nation's least-electable group, aside from Muslims and Atheists (only 30 per cent would consider backing a candidate who doesn't believe in God). When Americans were asked to sum up Mormonism in a single word, popular choices included "polygamy", "cult" and "different".

Hostility seems entrenched across the political spectrum. Liberals cast Mormons as weird God-botherers who are constrained by abstinence (in addition to alcohol, their faith considers tea, coffee and tobacco forbidden), obsessed by chastity to the point of prurience and unpleasantly censorious of alternative lifestyles. Conservatives take issue with their theology. Ted Haggard, the Bible-thumping minister credited with rallying the religious right behind George W Bush, once said: "We evangelicals view Mormons as a cult group."

John Green, a Pew Forum research adviser on religion and public life, says it's "possible" that attitudes are changing. "But my sense is that they won't have altered very much," he says. "These things move very slowly. Many Americans don't regard Mormons as proper Christians.

"That hasn't changed. Neither has the fact that both evangelicals and Mormons are proselytisers, meaning there's competition between them. There are a lot of odd people in America, but Mormons are also viewed as being particularly odd."

Little wonder, then, that Romney and Huckabee are tiptoeing around the issue of their faith.

Romney, a former Mormon missionary who served as a bishop in the LDS Church in Massachusetts and is a full tithe payer, once said that religion "informs very dramatically" his politics. But he has since often sidestepped invitations to discuss it, except in a faith-themed speech he gave four years ago, promising: "If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest."

Romney's campaign is gambling that his growing profile might temper hostility towards his faith, in the way that friendship with a same-sex couple is proven to make even right-wing conservatives receptive to the concept of gay marriage. "One of the reasons I'm more optimistic about our chances this time round is that we are not trying to sell a general Mormon," Mark DeMoss, an evangelical PR consultant connected to the Romney campaign, says. "Instead, we are trying to sell this Mormon. He has a name, a face and a family and a record people know about."

Huntsman has no such track record. That makes things tougher still. Though also a LDS missionary in his youth, he recently told Time magazine that his faith was "tough to define" and says he was "a very spiritual person" as opposed to a religious one. "There are varying degrees" of Mormonism, he says. "I come from a long line of saloon keepers and proselytisers and I draw from both sides." Those comments were misleading. "You can't be half way in or half way out; it's what sociologists would call a strict church," Monson says. And Huntsman's campaign last week clarified that he "remains a church member".

To many voters, Romney and Huntsman therefore raise a thorny question: is it wrong to oppose candidates because you dislike or fundamentally disagree with their faith? Some would call that bigotry; others a matter of personal judgment. Either way, when voters explore LDS theology, a good portion seems to decide that the basic premise of the faith is so stupendously unlikely that the judgment of anyone who buys into it is fundamentally flawed.

Latter-day Saints believe that in 1827, Smith, a farmer's son from upstate New York, experienced a revelation in which Moroni (the angel from Salt Lake City's temple) appeared and told him to dig a hole in a local hillside. He apparently discovered a book made from golden plates inscribed with illegible hieroglyphics. By using some diamond-encrusted spectacles and occasionally peering into a hat that had a brown rock in the bottom of it, he mysteriously found himself able translate these elaborate symbols. The result, when the golden plates were fully transcribed, was a new scripture: The Book of Mormon.

Mormons study this text in tandem with the Old and New Testaments, as a sort of third holy book. While the Bible is set largely in the Middle East, Smith's creation tells a history of the Americas from 600BC to roughly AD400. It posits that, after his resurrection, Jesus visited the continent for a period of weeks or months. The fundamentals of how their church is organised and the moral code by which members are expected to live are outlined in the Doctrine and Covenants.

When first written, a good portion of the Doctrine and Covenants was devoted to an endorsement of polygamy, which Mormons practiced energetically during the first 60 years of their church's existence. Other bits railed against tea, coffee and alcohol. But in time, the polygamous lifestyle began to attract criticism. Fortunately, Latter-day Saints believe that the covenants can be amended whenever the church's serving president announces that God has instructed him to make an alteration.

Such an event occurred in the 1890s, when Utah wanted to join the US but was prevented from doing so because of hostility towards polygamy. Essentially, the church announced that God decided suddenly to declare the practice immoral (the roughly 30,000 surviving polygamists in Utah are members of fundamentalist sects). It occurred again in the 1970s, when society became uneasy about a Mormon doctrine that banned people of colour from the priesthood; again, God authorised a change that opened it up to "all worthy males".

On a spiritual front, Mormons are encouraged to follow a moral code akin to evangelical Christians, who believe abortion, swearing and sex outside of marriage is bad news. The faith is focused around family life and three-hour church services each Sunday are presided over by a lay ministry of male patriarchs. Provided members pray regularly and follow the church's moral code, they expect, after death, to spend eternity in a multi-tiered Heaven, alongside their extended families.

Do Romney and Huntsman buy into this? We must accept that they do. Is that a big deal? Some theologians believe so. A religion which still accepts the possibility of divine inspiration can present conflicts of interest for a head of state. "If you're a mainstream Christian, you can say that you simply believe in the New Testament, God has said all he's going to say. In the LDS, that isn't the case," Kathleen Flake, a professor of US Religious History at Vanderbilt University, said. "They believe the leader of the church today still literally speaks to God."

What would happen, therefore, if a church leader instructed a Mormon president to nuke Iran? In theory, the president would have to push the red button. What might occur if a Mormon president conducted foreign policy according to instincts derived from his faith? On paper, given the church's belief that Jesus visited the Americas, he would set great store by the concept of American exceptionalism. Most pressingly, can a man who belives in the fundamental truth of a Victorian story that revolves around gold-detecting angels and buried treasure do the most important job in the world? In 18 months, we may find out.

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