Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012 | 2 a.m.
PROVO, Utah — Sitting cross-legged on a lawn with two other students, Whitney Call, a 23-year-old creative writing major at Brigham Young University, took satisfaction in at least one aspect of the outcome of the 2012 presidential election:
Mitt Romney might not have won, but he demonstrated that being a Mormon, like her, was no barrier to winning the nation’s highest office.
“His faith was not a factor in the election at all. Maybe that means that people are beginning to realize that Mormons are more mainstream than they thought,” she said.
Romney lost “because of his politics and not his religion, and I can live with that,” she said.
Since 2008, when Romney first sought the presidency, the question has hung in the air: Are Americans ready to vote for a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as their president?
More specifically, there were doubts that evangelical Christians, many of whom are taught that Mormonism is a cult, would ever vote for a Mormon candidate.
For the Utah-based church, those questions seemed to have been answered Tuesday. Some of Romney’s strongest support came from evangelical Christian voters who swept aside their theological differences and supported the candidate whose political views most closely matched their own.
Evangelical Christian voters — many of whom had turned their backs on Romney during the Republican primary — supported him in the general election at the same 4-1 ratio as did Mormons, according to exit polls analyzed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
That was a higher rate of evangelical support than Republican John McCain received in the 2008 presidential election. In addition, evangelicals appear to have turned out in higher numbers in 2012, putting to rest the notion that they would sit out the election rather than vote for a Mormon candidate.
There were even those who said the outcome of the election was a win-win for the Latter-day Saints: It exposed Americans to a positive view of Mormonism without running the risk that a Mormon president might not be successful.
“What if Romney won and it turns out he was a jerk, that he let down the country and his faith, as well?” said Steve Fidel, the faculty director of the BYU student newspaper, the Universe. “For Mormons, that would have meant four years of embarrassment.”
That is undoubtedly a minority view. Matthew Bowman, a visiting professor of religious studies at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and a member of the Mormon Church, said most Latter-day Saints were confident of Romney’s abilities. But if the much-touted “Mormon moment” is over, and the spotlight on the faith dims a bit, that’s also fine, he said.
Romney was the first Mormon nominated by a major party for president, and from the beginning of his campaign, it was clear that he considered his faith to be a touchy issue. For months, he avoided mentioning it. In May, he gave a speech on faith at Liberty University, an evangelical Christian college in Virginia whose catalog includes a course on “the major cults,” including Mormonism. Romney referred to “people of different faiths, like yours and mine,” but did not use the words “Mormon” or “Latter-day Saint.”
That changed somewhat at the Republican National Convention, when Romney spoke about his experience as a local leader of the Mormon community in Boston and allowed members of that community to offer testimonials about his role. He began inviting the news media to accompany him to Sunday services at various Mormon wards around the country.
Not only was there no apparent backlash, but the glimpses into Romney’s religious life also may have helped to soften his image as a cool and aloof businessman.
The Mormon church had been wary about the campaign. On the one hand, it was eager to portray itself as part of the American fabric, but it was leery of being accused of meddling in politics, especially after the criticism it faced over its leading role in the successful 2008 campaign for California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. (It was later found to be unconstitutional.)
Last week, the church issued a statement congratulating President Barack Obama, asking the nation to pray for him, and commending Romney “for engaging at the highest level of our democratic process.” There was no mention of his faith.
“I just think that attitude shows who we Mormons are,” 22-year-old John Fredrickson said as he walked between classes on the BYU campus. “We get it. Our man didn’t win. But we’re praying for the man who beat him. We know the difference between religion and politics.”
David Campbell, a scholar at University of Notre Dame and co-author of “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” said Romney’s candidacy may have increased the degree to which Mormons are associated with the Republican Party (even though Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, also is a Mormon).
“What has happened is a partisan polarization in attitudes toward Mormons,” Campbell said.
He also said that while the campaign provided an opening for better relations between Mormons and evangelicals, there was no guarantee it would last.
Joanna Brooks, an English professor at San Diego State University who has written widely about her Mormon faith, said the lack of hostility toward Romney’s religion was “significant ... and worthy of celebration.” But she said she wished he had spoken out more about his faith and its values.
Brooks even wrote a speech that she wished Romney had delivered, talking about how the history of his faith had taught him that “big dreams require sacrifice and hard work.” She wondered whether the time would ever come that a candidate for president could talk about his or her Mormon faith that way.
“That’s a question that another generation will have to take up,” she said.
Landsberg reported from Los Angeles.