Normalizing Mormon or Marketing Mitt?

When Mitt Romney announced his second run for President in June 2011, he began his announcement speech in a seemingly innocuous way. He briefly mentioned the diversity of the crowd gathered to listen to him. Pointing out retirees, college students, couples, a single mom and people of “different backgrounds,” he seemed pleased with the turnout. He did not, however, make any connection as to why people of “differing backgrounds” would be gathering other than to participate in the democratic process of electing a new president.

It’s very interesting how his observation of the crowd was quickly acknowledged and just as quickly forgotten.

Could Romney the conservative be participating in a progressive ad campaign of the Mormon Church by acknowledging such diversity?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS or the Mormon Church) launched an ad campaign in late 2010 called “I’m a Mormon.” The ad campaign features the stories of a diverse  group of people who defy the Mormon archetype. An archetype that Romney – a clean-cut, white, Republican family man – embodies. The ad campaign aims to paint the LDS in a “normal” light, one that will make it appear to be less cult-like, secretive and anti-gay.

“They wanted to get the word out that we’re not a cult,” said Mia B. Love, mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, “we’re not sitting in the mountains here with five wives. They wanted to let people know that we’re normal.”

Will this campaign for normalcy help Romney win the Republican nomination if not the White House?

LDS church leaders such as Steven B. Allen, the managing director of the LDS’ missionary department, say no. They claim that the timing of the campaign has nothing to do with the presidential election and have even gone so far as to not air ads from the new campaign in states with upcoming primaries.

The church claims coincidence. However, their image problem is shared by Romney and the GOP may now have a big problem to deal with.

Joanna Brooks, a Mormon expert, said, “Over the last twenty years evangelical Christian conservatives have emerged as perhaps the largest single voting bloc in the Republican party and thirty percent expressed reservations or say they outright won’t vote for a Mormon candidate for president.”

“Anti-Mormon sentiment has been around for more than 150 years in the United States,” Brooks adds. “I don’t think it’s going to disappear in one election cycle, and I’m afraid Mitt Romney is probably not the guy to do it.”

So, what does it all mean? Is the LDS trying to help Romney’s bid for election?

Progressive and ex-Mormons seem to think so.

John Dehlin, a progressive Mormon and editor of the web site said, “I think it’s [the ad] fabulous. I think it represents in many ways the best impulses of the Mormon people. It represents tolerance. It represents multiculturalism. It represents an empowerment of women, inclusivity.”

Dehlin also thinks that the ad campaign is good for Romney. “The extent to which the church can get ahead of the game and portray itself as hip, progressive and inclusive paves the way for a smoother Romney campaign.”

However, Dehlin and other progressive and ex-Mormons say the ad is misleading. They claim that it does not actually reflect the Mormon teachings regarding race and gender equality.

“The husband is supposed to work and the mom is supposed to stay home and take care of the kids. There’s a difference between what the prophets teach us and what this PR campaign is holding up.” says Dehlin.

Ex-Mormons say that the ads stink of hypocrisy and have expressed concern that younger generations of Mormons may view the ads as a path to a different life, only to be shot down by the church leadership.

It doesn’t take an investigative reporter to see that the LDS PR campaign is more than just a feel-good way of improving how Mormons are viewed. It’s too radical a shift and the timing is too coincidental to be anything but a PR campaign for Romney.