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Is the US view of Mormons changing?

12 October 11 15:05 GMT

Jonny Dymond asks members of the Mormon Church how they think they are viewed by the rest of the United States, and assesses the likelihood that one of their faithful could be elected the next president.

On a warm Saturday night in the town of Provo, Utah, a sell-out 65,000-strong crowd is enjoying a clash between two local universities, a football match described by some - with tongue only slightly in cheek - as "the holy war".

The home team, Brigham Young University (BYU), established by and for Mormons, and named after the faith's second leader, are playing the secular University of Utah.

The vast majority of fans are BYU fanatics, happy to share their thoughts on the place of the Mormons in the 21st Century:

"I think the Mormon religion is getting more well known," says one fan, "people know more about the Church. As far as being mainstream, I think people still consider us different, and not Christian".

"I think there is still some separation, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about Mormons," says another, "but I think people are more and more starting to notice us and starting to realise that we are normal people".

Theological differences

Despite the dominant presence of Jesus Christ in the imagery and language of Mormonism, there are many who still cast doubt on the faith's Christian credentials.

Alongside the Bible, Mormons also believe in the Book of Mormon, a sacred text which they believe was revealed to the Church's founder, Joseph Smith, in the 19th Century.

The book was, it is said, engraved on gold plates and buried in upstate New York. Mormons believe that it contains writing by prophets that lived in the Americas both before and after the birth of Christ. Alongside some of the writings of Smith, it is an essential part of the Mormon creed.

Polygamy was abandoned more than a century ago, but further theological differences remain with mainstream Christianity.

Those differences led to problems for Mitt Romney four years ago, when the former Massachusetts governor ran for the presidential nomination.

Echoing a 1960 speech given by former John F Kennedy about his relationship with the Roman Catholic Church at a time when many Protestants questioned whether Kennedy's faith would prevent him from making decisions independent of the Church, Mr Romney spoke out about his faith, emphasising his belief in Christ.

Growing understanding

But the controversy remained, and his faith was judged to be one of the reasons that he crashed out of the South Carolina primary in 2008, coming fourth.

South Carolina republicans have a high proportion of evangelical Christians in their ranks, and evangelicals do not have a whole lot of time for Mormons.

"The Baptist denomination is the strongest one in the state, and most Baptists believe in Biblical inerrancy, that the Bible is true, as we read it," says Professor Mark Tompkins of the University of South Carolina.

"And along come the Mormons with another document, which is crucial to their faith, along come the stories about the temple garments and the rest of it. It just feels very different," he adds. "Cult is the word that has been used most often."

Members of a cult is how mega church pastor and Perry supporter, Robert Jeffress described Mr Romney and Mr Huntsman last week triggering a media furore.

Mr Romney's friends and advisors acknowledge the issue. But they believe that it is not playing nearly as strongly this time around - because much more is known about the former governor, and because the nation as a whole understands more about the Mormon faith.

Nonetheless when I ask Kirk Jowers, a family friend, whether it would be easier if Mr Romney was not a Mormon, he pauses before saying:

"At this point probably yes. On the other hand, who knows where he would be without his Mormon faith?"

Spreading the Mormon message

The Missionary Training Centre in Provo, Utah, gives a taste of the forces that shape young Mormons.

In the lobby of the brick building a first edition of the Book of Mormon sits in a display case. Signs above the pay phones lay down the rules of use - authorisation must be given, calls must be no more than five minutes, many periods of the day are of bounds.

At any one time, three thousand 19-year-old Mormons attend the centre - the young men in white shirts, ties and dark trousers, the young women in long dresses and conservative tops - preparing for their two year mission.

Here they learn, from early in the morning to late at night, a language - anything from Croatian to Tagolog - and study the Mormon faith, the better to try and convert people to it.

For the two years of their mission the young men and women spend nearly all their time with just one Mormon companion, who may or may not speak English, either study or proselytising - out on the streets or knocking on doors try to convert. They are allowed to make only two phone calls a year back home.

Organisation, leadership, perseverance, an understanding of other cultures and communication are some of the skills and talents imbued and honed in the missionary process.

They have all stood Mr Romney in good stead. But that which has helped forge his character, may yet be his electoral undoing.

Back at the football game field the blues and reds slug it out. Brigham Young University is being crushed by the University of Utah. A legendary humiliation is in the making.

If Mr Romney becomes a candidate, or even president, I ask one fan, does it change things forever for Mormonism?

"You know I don't think it changes things forever," he says, "I think people are going to still have their perceptions. They may just think Romney's weird, if they think we're weird."

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