boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
ALEX BEAM

A Mormon president? I don't think so

By now, almost every newspaper in America has published an analysis of Mitt Romney's presidential aspirations titled "Can a Mormon Be Elected President?" The stories follow a preordained path to arrive at the politically and socially desirable answer: Yes.

These set pieces serve mainly to make the not particularly religion-savvy political commentariat feel good about themselves. The writer appears unbiased, and the article inevitably validates the cherished American myth about our tolerance for diversity.

Can a Mormon be elected president in 2008? No.

Even Romney himself has his doubts. Last week's leaked campaign memo unearthed by Globe reporter Scott Helman stated that "Romney's sensitivity to his Mormon faith as a campaign issue is apparent throughout the plan. It acknowledges that some view Mormonism as weird and lists ways Romney should defend his faith, from highlighting the way he has lived his life, rather than which church he attends, to acknowledging theological differences with mainline Christian denominations while refusing to be drawn into an extensive discussion of Mormon doctrine and practices."

On the plus side, Romney and many observant Mormons seem to lead exemplary, enviable, and productive lives centered on the traditional nuclear family. But Romney would do well to refuse "to be drawn into an extensive discussion of Mormon doctrine and practices," because any such discussion inevitably raises more questions than it answers.

I have been watching the first two hours of a forthcoming WGBH-produced, four-hour special "The Mormons," slated to air nationwide on PBS April 30 and May 1. (The second half is still being edited.) It's vintage public broadcasting, plodding at times -- if I see another covered wagon heading for Zion, I'll get motion sickness -- and cloyingly fair-minded. And there's the rub. The shows do not paint a flattering portrait of what filmmaker Helen Whitney calls "one of the most powerful, feared, and misunderstood religions in American history."

The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormons call themselves, cooperated with " The American Experience " and "Frontline, " the show's co-producers. Whitney in turn pays the church the compliment of taking its faith very seriously indeed. The positives are there for all to see: the Mormons' triumph over persecution in mid-century America; the dramatic "exodus" from Illinois to Utah, the "country no one else wanted," according to Wallace Stegner, a great admirer of the Mormon pioneers; the devotion to family and community.

But also on view are doctrines and practices that most Americans would view as strange. For instance, founding prophet Joseph Smith's revelation that the Garden of Eden was in Independence, Mo., and that Jesus Christ visited America shortly after his resurrection. On camera, Yale archeologist Michael Coe calls Smith a "shaman," which is probably accurate but not a great quote for Mormons. Whitney does not shy away from telling us how the church has treated blacks and gays over the years. A 1978 revelation now allows male African-Americans to enter the LDS's lay priesthood. Gays are not particularly welcome, just as they are unwelcome in many other mainstream American faiths. "Being gay in that [Mormon] culture is beyond hell," one man says to Whitney's camera.

"The Mormons" even tackles the ultimate red herring, "celestial marriage," Joseph Smith's term for polygamy. The church has gone to great pains to promulgate prophet Wilford Woodruff's 1890 declaration condemning polygamy, deemed to have superseded Smith's earlier, contrary revelation. HBO, which continues to broadcast "Big Love," a series about a polygamist who lives outside Salt Lake City, apparently didn't get the memo.

Nor did PBS. "The Mormons" estimates that 30,000 to 60,000 fundamentalist believers practice polygamy. Whitney has footage of 11 happy children passing plates around the dinner table, with three mothers and a father in attendance. Heather has three Mommies! Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Michael Sullivan, "Frontline" executive producer for special projects, calls the project "respectful but frank. We're not out to get the Mormons." He says "there is a small section on Romney" in the portion of the documentary that is still being edited. Romney declined to be interviewed for the show.

What does it all mean? PBS claims it has 75 million viewers a week. Let's say one-tenth -- no, one-twentieth -- of that audience watches "The Mormons." That's almost 4 million men and women who will know more about the Mormon faith than Romney might wish them to know. It's bad math for the Mittster.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com. f

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES