Local Mormons await Romney speech
Welcome public spotlight on faith, hope he will clear up stereotypes
Todd Richards, 14, of Northborough, Renee Demontity, 14, of Clinton (center), and Kira Kennedy, 17, of Clinton prayed during their early morning Mormon religion class at the home of Aaron Hutchins in Northborough. (Ellen Harasiowicz for the Boston Globe)
NORTHBOROUGH - The morning was still pitch black and a crescent moon was high in the sky when nine Mormon teenagers arrived at Aaron Hutchins's house yesterday for their daily predawn religious education class.
These high school students, like Mormons almost everywhere but Utah, are a tiny minority in the suburban towns along Interstate 495, so their daily gathering is a chance to study a faith that was largely ignored and occasionally mocked by the broader American culture until this year's presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney, who is also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The students are looking forward to this morning's speech by Romney on his faith and its role in his candidacy; they hope he will put to rest questions they sometimes confront about whether their parents are polygamists and whether they themselves are Christian. The youths, sockfooted and seated in a carpeted den, spent 45 minutes studying Leviticus, part of their yearlong examination of the Old Testament.
"I hope he clears up some stereotypes," Dan Abernethy, 17, of Southborough, said of the former Massachusetts gover nor, who will speak at George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.
For Romney, the address is intended to give new energy to a campaign that appears to be losing ground to Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas. But for Mormons, the speech is a chance to bring them into the political mainstream, as a speech by John F. Kennedy in 1960 sought to reassure voters that a Catholic president would not take orders from the Vatican.
The "bloggernacle," as the hundreds of Mormon blogs are collectively known, is abuzz with anticipation of the speech, and debate over what Romney should say and whether he is representing the church well.
"It is a significant moment for Mormonism in the public sphere," said Richard L. Bushman, a professor of history emeritus at Columbia University and the preeminent Mormon scholar of Mormonism.
"Romney's political challenge has been to make a Mormon candidate for president acceptable to the American public, as Kennedy made Roman Catholics acceptable," Bushman said. "Romney's tactic has been to depict Mormons as no more than a different shade of Protestants, and evangelical Protestants at that.
"His comments have consistently played down differences. The theme is 'We are just like you.' The problem is that evangelicals don't feel that way and neither do Mormons."
Romney, a sixth-generation Mormon who has served in several lay leadership positions in the church, has repeatedly said that he is not a spokesman for the Mormon Church. He has also said he does not intend to offer a primer on his beliefs in his speech today; he will talk generally about religion in politics.
Still, the reason Romney is giving this speech, and that none of the other dozen or so major party candidates for president has addressed religion so formally, is that his faith is much less understood, and the subject of far more controversy, than Protestantism and Catholicism. Romney is closely associated with his faith - a poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicated that Romney is the candidate most often described as "very religious" - and one in four people surveyed by Pew said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate for president.
"I don't believe Mitt can change people's perspectives much, but I do hope that he is able to explain how his Mormon upbringing changed him and made him who he is today," Danny Ainge, the general manager of the Boston Celtics and a Mormon, said in an interview yesterday.
Ainge, like many Mormons interviewed in recent months, said he believes the attention to Mormonism the Romney campaign has brought - although occasionally painful because it stirs up negative views of the faith - is ultimately healthy because it forces the religion to engage more directly with the broader culture.
"I think it's a real positive - I think it makes us more realistic and less isolated, and it's making us stronger as an organization and better understood," Ainge said.
The Latter-day Saints has adopted a new public relations strategy, motivated, the church said, by a desire to define its own image rather than allow it to be defined by critics.
"It's unfortunate that in our country, priding itself on democracy and everyone having the freedom of religion, that people are trying to make a big issue of this, based on our beliefs, but I'm not surprised, because the Mormon Church is such a unique faith," said Kevin Rollins, a former chief executive officer of Dell and another prominent Massachusetts Mormon.
Rollins said he believes many people view Mormons positively, but their faith as unusual, and wonder whether Romney would "do anything odd as president."
Romney's task today, Rollins said, is to convince skeptics.
"I don't think he's going to be a missionary for the faith from the podium - that's not what he's supposed to do - but I do think he'll try to calm their fears," Rollins said.
"I think what he will want to say is that Mormon people are good people, they believe in their country almost to a fault, they love their country and the principle of freedom of thought, and every person should be given the right to worship God with free will," Rollins added.
"But, there are principles he has to follow as president that may transcend his faith, and that will be his intent. As a president, he has to represent all the people."
Kennedy used video of his widely praised 1960 speech to promote his campaign and in an effort to engender sympathy. The Romney campaign, hoping for a similar response, is promoting today's speech.
But some Mormons are concerned with how the speech will be received in the political world.
"I don't think anything he says is going to be controversial, but people will try to pull out negatives, and more interesting will be listening to the pundits all day long and how they dissect it," said Mike Dowling, the principal sports reporter for WCVB-TV's NewsCenter 5.
The students who gather in Northborough at 6 a.m. each weekday, drawn from the Mormon communities in Clinton, Northborough, Southborough, and Shrewsbury, will be at their local schools when Romney speaks.
The students said that they often face questions that reflect an outdated or inaccurate understanding of their faith but that they generally believe the attention generated by Romney's candidacy is a plus.
"People come up and say, 'What do you really believe?' " said 17-year-old Kira Kennedy of Clinton. "It's a question-starter. They want to know more about what we believe."
Michael Paulson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.