A visit to Salt Lake City, Utah, finds some surprises about the Mormon faith, and the faithful, who are watching for the first time as one of their own has become nominee of a major party to bid for the presidency.
SALT LAKE CITY – Kim moved to Salt Lake City to pursue her pediatric studies. The 19-year-old, who used to live in Los Angeles, says life is cheaper here in the Utah state capital, and she wanted to enjoy wide-open spaces and the nearby canyons.
Inevitably, Kim explains, she would be forced to get to know Mormons, who inevitably ask her if she too shares their faith. "They are conservative but also tolerant. They try to convince you, but do not insist too much."
Pointing at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' sprawling temple in Salt Lake City, Kim also notes their missionary work in poor parts of the world. "They even built temples in Guatemala," she says with admiration.
In this town, you can't escape the "LDS" Church. Even if the Mormons are less present in the city than in its suburbs, everything here gravitates around the Temple Square Tabernacle and the LDS headquarters – a huge concrete bunker shaped as a cross that resembles Stalinist-era construction.
There are not many Churches that can invest a billion dollars in the construction of a colossal mall. The City Creek Center has been built a couple of blocks away from Temple Square, to revitalize the town center. In the mall, the bookstore Deseret Books allows you to leaf through the "Book of Mormon" in all available languages, from Chinese to Russian, as well as the works of Thomas Monson, the current LDS president and prophet.
But talk right now is focused on the presidential race, as the first Mormon ever – Republican nominee Mitt Romney -- has just clinched a major party nomination.
The "Mormon factor"
"Obama in favor of gay marriage…" When this sensational piece of news hit the front pages of the city's two arch-rival newspapers -- The Salt Lake Tribune (anti-Mormon) and the Deseret News, owned by the LDS since 1850 – it set off immediate debate.
"Obama's open support of gay marriage will help Romney ignite Republicans in swing states, such as North Carolina, Ohio, Florida and Virginia," explains Richard Davis, political sciences teacher in Brigham Young University, the Mormon university where Mitt Romney studied. "It will convince the evangelists to vote for Mitt Romney, whereas they were half-hearted supporters until now."
Founded in 1875, BYU is two-thirds subsidized by the Mormon Church. Neither piercings nor tattoos are allowed. The "Code of Honor" prohibits it, just like the "Words of Wisdom" prohibit Mormons from drinking coffee, tea or wine. "When someone is addicted to a substance, he is fragile and cannot be responsive to God's spirit," Nicolas Blosil explains. This young American of Czech descent became an instructor in the missionaries training center after a two-year mission in France.
According to Davis, if Romney's faith has been a problem during the Republican primaries, it is not the case anymore. As a Mormon and a Democrat, Davis nevertheless thinks that "it would be a great symbol of religious diversity if Mitt Romney was elected as President, as Barack Obama was a symbol of racial diversity."
Even if it's not politically correct to talk about it, the "Mormon factor" is very real. According to a Pew Center survey, 22% of the Americans think that a Mormon President "causes problems." What is at stake for the Republican candidate now is his ability to erase the "weird" aspect of his religion, which only counts six million American believers, and eight million in the rest of the world.
"Not so conservative..."
At the heart of everyone's concerns is polygamy, first promoted by the LDS founder Joseph Smith, and then banned by the U.S. Congress in 1870. Long before they settled in Salt Lake City, Mitt Romney's great-grandparents had to flee to Mexico to escape from polygamy's ban.
Even nowadays, the Church's members seem to be bothered when the subject is mentioned. "It's true that there's a persistent effect of polygamy on the religion's image," Jim Dabakis admits. This former Mormon, who is now openly gay, has run the Utah Democratic Party since 2011. According to some estimates, there are still between 25,000 and 30,000 Mormon fundamentalists, "without any link with the Church", who practice polygamy in Utah, Colorado and Arizona.
But Jim Dabakis, who studied in BYU, believes that the organization has evolved. "One of the great advantages of the Mormon Church is that it thinks that God still talks. When putting an end to polygamy was needed, there was a revelation and they put an end to it. The Church is not as conservative as one might think." Thus, two years ago, about twenty BYU students could participate to a video entitled "Hi, I am a Mormon, I am gay."
Apart from the Senator of Nevada Harry Reid – "the most important Mormon in Washington" – Democrats struggle to gain ground among the LDS. On a national scale, there are only 18% Mormon Democrats, and 9% in Utah.
Officially, the Mormon Church doesn't support any Presidential candidate. Since the 1970s, Utah has always voted for the Republican Party, even if Salt Lake City is Democrat. According to Ben McAdams, Utah's Democrat Senator, "there's no reason to vote for or against Mitt Romney on the basis of his faith."
As a Mormon himself, he thinks that "Romney's past as Bain Capital's leader will create a bigger controversy than his faith." He is glad that the Mormon Church doesn't interfere in politics. "It's refreshing for the American political system to have two candidates of such high-levels, both with strong faith," this former lawyer adds.
Some progressive Mormons want to take advantage of the presidential spotlight to ask for more transparency in a Church hierarchy that has long been very discreet about how it functions.
"It is true that a part of the American electorate is still puzzled by Mitt Romney's religion," Richard Davis concludes. "But the fact that he got the Party's nomination shows that things have moved on to the next stage." It remains to be seen what effect the "Mormon factor" will have in November.
Read the original article in French
Photo - Jeff McGrath