Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is prompting a surge of interest — or at least curiosity — about the Mormon faith, according to national church executives.
The surge has been so strong, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has bolstered its public outreach efforts and established a 24-hour hot line for political writers and commentators seeking the most basic information about the church.
The idea is to provide quick and accurate information to reporters, commentators and other political observers who are unfamiliar with the fourth largest religion in the United States, said John Taylor, national director of public affairs and namesake great-grandson of John Taylor, the third president of the church.
Church executives noticed an increase in interest, particularly from East Coast media outlets, about 18 months ago when Romney, a Mormon and former governor of Massachusetts, began exploring a presidential campaign. The spike in interest is reminiscent of the months preceding the 2002 Winter Olympics, said Michael Otterson, the church’s associate managing director of public affairs.
“During the Olympics, we got this surge of interest in the church because it was in Salt Lake City. And the people who were calling were sports reporters, who of course, knew nothing about religion, so we had a lot of sports reporters writing about religion,” Otterson said. Romney served as president and CEO of those Olympics.
Romney’s latest quest had spurred a similar surge, this time by political writers, who are only slightly more informed about the faith than sports reporters, Otterson said.
In January, church officials ran a Google search using the words “Romney” and “Mormon” and came up with 16,000 hits for articles that used both words. This month, the same search generated 1.3 million hits.
“The level of interest was such that journalists were approaching other people — evangelicals, academics and various people — for comments on the church or for a description of what our beliefs were. Nothing wrong with that. We understand that journalists have to seek multiple sources, but very often they wouldn’t call us,” Otterson said.
In response, the church assembled a media guide outlining the church’s core beliefs, history, organizational structure, welfare programs and related topics.
Furthermore, church executives have been meeting with news reporters in Washington, D.C., and nationwide to provide background information about the faith. “We just felt the need to get out and meet face-to-face with a number of the strong regional newspapers and press individuals and just say, ‘If you get to that point where you’re going to write, please just include us,’” Taylor said.
Taylor and Otterson met with two Tribune reporters last week.
Among the points concerning the intersection of faith and politics that church officials consider important:
• The Mormon church has no connection to the Romney campaign.
• The church encourages its members to vote, but maintains a neutral political position and does not endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms.
• The church does not allow its buildings, membership lists or other resources to be used for partisan political purposes.
• The church requests political office-seekers to refrain from implying that their candidacies or platforms are endorsed by the church.
Speaking to the Tribune last month, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a Mormon, said Romney’s candidacy will provide non-Mormons an opportunity to become more familiar with the faith.
“For those who think that the church dictates everything we should say or do, I give you Harry Reid as Exhibit A. I mean, you can have someone like Orrin Hatch on one side and Harry Reid on the other, both LDS members,” Flake said.
Senate Majority Leader Reid is a liberal Democrat from Nevada while Hatch is a conservative Republican senator from Utah. Flake has gone outside the faith to support the presidential candidacy of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an Episcopalian.