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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 December 2006, 12:42 GMT
Is America ripe for a Mormon president?
By Justin Webb
BBC News, Washington

My heart sank when I first received the call. It was from a very swish public relations firm - Edelman - and it was an offer of help.

Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney will declare he is running for President next month.

It is a general rule in journalism that people who want to speak to you tend to be uninteresting.

When they make their offer through a highly paid middleman they tend to be uninteresting on stilts - or else making a case of dubious merit: that the arms trade is good for humanity, or first class airfares are too cheap.

But on this occasion I was in for a surprise. Edelman provided an insight into a world about which I knew nothing and which I now believe is of huge importance for the future of the United States.

The PR firm wanted to send round a couple of representatives of the Church of the Latter Day Saints - the Mormons.

Just a chat you understand, nothing more.

Hot drink dilemma

I gave them 10 minutes on a Monday morning and promptly forgot all about it until two middle-aged men in grey suits - Michael and Ken - turned up at our office reception.

The Mormon Temple
Salt Lake City is home to the Mormons and the main temple.

I offered them coffee and began a learning process.

You may already know that Mormons do not drink coffee or alcohol but what you might not know is that their religious ban is on "hot drinks".

And that cocoa has been decreed "not hot". And, furthermore, that Coke and Pepsi and the like exist at the moment in a doctrinal grey area.

All these things I learned that morning.

But as 10 minutes became half an hour and an hour and more, I made a much more profound discovery about this faith: that its adherents are bright and intellectually open, and have a sense of humour, of humanity, that is sadly lacking in other strands of American religious life.

Forget for a moment the old stereotype of the Mormon in rural Utah - the multiple wives - of which the Church has not approved for 100 years.

Mormons are social conservatives - hugely keen on the promotion of family life.

They believe your family group stays with you for eternity - not necessarily a comforting thought by the end of this Christmas season.

A different attitude

But here is a big difference between Mormons and other American evangelists - Mormons do not feel threatened by science.

This nation is still dominated by the mainstream sects of the Christian faith but faith based politics is out of favour.

They are not enemies of the rational world - they are not creationists.

And on human conduct they tend to stress setting personal examples rather than getting the state to enforce religious rules.

Why does this matter? Because of a man with a matinee idol's chiselled jaw and a bank balance the size of the tallest mountain in Utah.

A man named Mitt Romney who is a Mormon and who will declare next month that he is running for president.

A man who will present the Republican Party - his party - with a dilemma next year. Put simply: Are the Mormons too strange for prime time?

Or, put another way: Is the Republican party too bigoted to select a Mormon as its presidential candidate?

Until recently I would have said it probably was. But what I have learned about Mormons and what seems to be happening in America, leads me to wonder whether their time has come.

Cafes beware

This nation is still dominated by the mainstream sects of the Christian faith but faith-based politics is out of favour.

The Republican Convention
Will Republicans back a Mormon as their Presidential candidate?

President Bush famously and hubristically told an interviewer that before invading Iraq he consulted not his own Dad, but a higher Father.

That does not turn out to have been terribly wise. And here is where Mitt Romney's Mormons fit into the new landscape. The Church does not involve itself in politics.

Membership gives no clue as to voting intention.

Mitt Romney happens to be setting out his stall as a rightwing Republican but I met a prominent Mormon the other day - a professor at an Ivy League University - who said she would never vote for Mitt Romney although she attends the same Mormon temple and believes in the same Mormon faith.

Many Americans - emerging from the dark days of faith-based politics - find this very healthy.

The book of Mormon - an addition to the Bible which arrived in tablets of gold in upstate New York in the nineteenth century, says Jesus will return and set up his Kingdom in Jackson County, Missouri, where you will be surprised to learn the Garden of Eden was once located.

I am not suggesting a US Second Coming is imminent and there are plenty of Americans who will continue to resist the theological eccentricities of this Church.

However, I would be tempted to sell my Starbucks shares if I had any - 2007 will not be the Year of the Hot Drink in a nation where Mormons are on the rise.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 23 December, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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