By Stephanie Martin
Since first arriving in California in the mid-1800′s, members of the Mormon faith have played an active role in the state’s civic and cultural life.
They’ve colonized settlements, built businesses, served in the legislature, and — as recently as four years ago — Mormon congregations helped get out the vote for Proposition 8, the statewide ban on same sex marriage.
The Mormon church officially holds a neutral position about Mitt Romney’s candidacy for president. But during the campaign I’ve spoken with individual Mormons around the state about the intersection of faith and politics in this year’s presidential election.
In general the California Mormons I spoke with agreed that counting a U.S. president among their ranks would mark an important first for their faith. But when I asked how they felt about the man who could win that distinction — Republican nominee Mitt Romney — I heard a wide range of opinions.
I met Modesto resident Tresa Edmunds at a San Francisco gathering called “Circling the Wagons” — part of a series of supportive conferences for gay and lesbian Mormons, their family and friends. Edmunds was raised Mormon.
“I’m an active Mormon. I love the Gospel,” she told me. She’s also a die-hard Democrat and says the fact that Mitt Romney is a lifelong Mormon doesn’t sway her vote in the least.
“Doubt and dissent can be a very sacred form of participation in church life,” she says. ”If there are people around me who are comfortable speaking as if Romney is “Our Man,’” she says smiling and making air quotes, “then I need to be comfortable dissenting.”
Edmunds, who is disappointed with her church for backing Proposition 8, likes Obama’s support of same sex marriage. She agrees with those who accuse Mitt Romney of being a profit-focused businessman, out of touch with the poor and middle class.
She says when she thinks about him through the lens of her faith that a Romney presidency doesn’t make sense.
“He is certainly representative of a certain stripe of Mormonism. But it’s not my Mormonism,” she says.
Over in Silicon Valley retired real estate developer and local philanthropist Boyd Smith couldn’t disagree more. Smith is one of California’s top Romney fundraisers and spends hours each week in his Palo Alto office making phone calls.
Like Tresa Edmunds, Smith is a lifelong Mormon with a strong love for his faith. But he sees Mitt Romney from a vastly different perspective. Smith spent several years serving as a Mormon bishop in Palo Alto, and Romney served as a Mormon bishop in Boston. Smith says the role of bishop is a leadership job that involves looking after the poorest members of the congregation, making sure they have plenty of food, clothing and help finding employment.
“A bishop is more in touch with the poor than any politician in this world is,” Smith explained. “Because that’s the heart of what he does, and he spends hours and hours and hours every week at it.”
Smith says he supports Romney because of his politics, not his Mormonism.
Still, Smith believes the candidate’s active role in the Mormon Church says a great deal about who he is as person and a leader.
“I know he’s got character. I know he’s honest. I know he is moral. I know you cannot buy the man,” Smith says. “because we just can’t be bought.”
Professor Patrick Mason Chairs the Mormon Studies Department at Claremont Graduate University. He points out that Mormons are diverse politically, just like other religious groups in America. “They are not a solid and completely monolithic voting block.”
Mason says there’s no significant polling data showing how California Mormons plan to vote this election, but national surveys suggest that the Mormons across the country will largely back Romney.
That may be helpful to Romney in Nevada and Colorado — both swing states with larger-than-average Mormon populations. In California, Mormons make up about two percent of the population — also larger than average. But Mason says it’s not enough to help Romney win this solidly Democratic state. Still, he expects a large Mormon voter turnout.
“Because the overwhelming majority of Mormons will be voting for Romney,” Mason says, “they’ll also be voting on a Republican ticket. So, it’s conceivable to think that they could have some influence in some areas where there’s a significant turnout for Republican-voting Mormons.”
Mason, a Mormon himself, says even in a diverse state like California, Mormons often complain that they feel misunderstood and discriminated against — especially in the wake of the controversial battle over Proposition 8. ”There was a lot of blowback against the Mormon community, and a lot of Mormons in California feel quite scarred by that.”
Mason also says Mormons are concerned that a Romney presidency could open up their church to further scrutiny.
Back in Modesto, Tresa Edmunds finds herself already feeling pretty uncomfortable.
“A lot of us are kind of white-knuckling it, hoping that these things like — say the temple ceremonies or some of our more esoteric doctrines that seem so bizarre to people — we recognize that these things that are very tender and sacred to us can, in some ways, become fair game, and that’s a little bit terrifying.”
But on the flip side, Edmunds says, Romney’s candidacy has given her new opportunities to talk with non-Mormons about her faith, answer questions and clear up misconceptions. As a faithful Mormon, it’s something she always welcomes, regardless of what’s happening in politics.
Listen to Stephanie Martin’s story: