Mitt Romney is facing an unexpected challenge in Iowa from rival Mike Huckabee, who has enjoyed a groundswell of support from religious voters, particularly evangelical Christians wary of the clean-cut former Massachusetts governor because of his Mormon religion.
The common worry among evangelicals is that if Romney were to capture the White House, his presidency would give legitimacy to a religion they believe is a cult. Since the LDS church places heavy emphasis on proselytizing — there are 53,000 LDS missionaries worldwide — many mainstream Christians are afraid that Mormon recruiting efforts would increase and that LDS membership rolls would swell.
One such concerned evangelical, Tricia Erickson, was raised in the Mormon faith but left as an adult. She has attended the McLean Bible Church in northern Virginia. Erickson adamantly opposes the LDS church, which she considers a brainwashing cult. She has launched a media blitz designed to discredit Romney based on his religion.
In an interview, Erickson told me that Romney has “got the image. He’s a good business man. He has the coiffed hair with every hair in place. … He has a pretty, blonde Mormon wife; he has a chiseled face. He is very polished. He has that image which Mormons develop through the Mormon Church to present to the public to give credibility to the religion.”
Or take Bill Keller, evangelical host of the Florida-based “Live Prayer TV.” Last year he told his reported 2.4 million e-mail subscribers that a vote for Romney would mean a vote for Satan.
“The presidency is the most powerful position in the world,” Keller explained to me. “If Romney was elected president, it would give mainstream credibility and acceptance to the Mormon cult and lead millions of people into that cult.”
THE ONLY PROBLEM with those fears is that they don’t add up. Evangelicals may be surprised to learn that the growth of church membership in Massachusetts slowed substantially during Romney’s tenure as governor. In fact, one could make the absurdly simplistic argument that Romney was bad for Mormonism.
Consider: From 1997 to 2002, the six years prior to Romney’s governorship, LDS church membership in Massachusetts grew by a rate of nearly 40 percent. During the four years Romney was in office, membership growth slowed to a snail’s pace — a mere 1.7 percent, according to membership statistics kept by the church and published in the LDS Church Almanac. The national growth rate during that same period was about three times the Massachusetts number: 5.1 percent.
During the Romney years, the number of Mormon wards and branches, congregations that are created and dissolved based on geography and population, in the Bay State rose by one and fell by one, indicating that congregational growth was static. Nationwide, the number of congregations grew by 7.3 percent.
When I put these growth rates to both Erickson and Keller, they didn’t dispute the numbers. However, they argued that a Romney presidency would be something else entirely.
Erickson said the Massachusetts stagnancy can be attributed to the liberal nature of the state, where Christianity is declining. However, if Romney won the White House, she argued that Mormons would have an easier time winning converts in the more religious parts of the nation, particularly the South, where church attendance is high.
Keller believes the slowed Massachusetts growth rate is explained by the fact that Massachusetts is a stronghold for Catholics. He claimed these Catholics have grown less willing to listen to Mormon proselytizing but, like Erickson, he fears a Romney presidency will open the floodgates elsewhere.
SUPERFICIALLY, Erickson and Keller’s worries are not crazy. The LDS church has undergone phenomenal growth in the past.
David O. McKay was the ninth prophet and president of the Church, who served from 1951 to 1970. McKay implemented the “every member a missionary” program in 1961 in hopes of spreading the LDS Gospel worldwide, to great effect. Under his tenure, the number of LDS “stakes” — congregational units similar to a Catholic diocese — more than doubled, and total church membership well more than doubled.
Since McKay’s death, subsequent church prophets, apostles, and lay leaders have continued to stress missionary work, particularly singling out lay members of the church as not doing enough to advance the cause. During a 1999 address beamed from Salt Lake City to chapels throughout the world, the current Mormon prophet Gordon B. Hinckley urged members to double the number of people baptized into the Church each year, from 300,000 to 600,000.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?