Mormons massaging public image as spotlight widens

As Mormon Mitt Romney runs for president, church leaders meet and greet the media to answer questions and inform.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
Published November 24, 2007

Responding to the almost unprecedented spotlight on their faith generated by the presidential aspirations of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have launched a national campaign of their own.

Top leaders are talking to editorial boards, and staff members from the church's Salt Lake City headquarters and local volunteers are meeting other journalists to offer basic information about the faith, dispel misconceptions and highlight commonalities with traditional Christianity. The church also is talking about differences that separate it from other believers.

John Taylor, a spokesman who traveled to the Tampa Bay area as part of the public relations effort, said interest in the Mormon faith has soared over the past year. He said the church, which is politically neutral, is trying to be part of the national conversation about its doctrine to be sure its story is told accurately and fairly.

The American-born religion is battling two fronts: those who know little about the faith but hold negative perceptions, and others who are more knowledgeable and strongly disagree with the doctrine.

The Rev. Bill Martin falls into the latter group. He has Mormon ancestors, but also is the nephew of the late Walter Martin, author of Kingdom of the Cults, an evangelical standard that denounces Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, New Thought religions such as the Unity movement and other faith communities.

Martin, pastor of Cornerstone Bible Church in St. Petersburg, has positive things to say about Mormons, but disagrees with their theology.

"I believe Mormon people are some of the most wonderful, neighborly, law-abiding people you can find in this country. They have held the line on a lot of moral issues that are important to American tradition," he said.

"Having said that, Mormonism is a theological and biblical perversion of Orthodox Christianity, because at the root of it, it is polytheistic."

The Rev. Alan Rowbotham, former senior minister of First Unity Church in St. Petersburg, thinks the Mormon church has taken the right step in trying to explain its faith.

"Any time there is clarity around an issue, it's a good thing," said Rowbotham, who is retired and publishes a newsletter, Spiritual Solutions.

"People seem to very often view that which is unknown to them or strange to them as being something that is bad, without any real understanding of what the tenets are."

During a recent visit to the area, Taylor quietly and earnestly answered some of the questions detractors regularly raise about his faith: polygamy, blacks in the church, temple rituals and supplementary scriptures.

"We believe in Jesus Christ. He is the core and center of everything we do. We worship him. We honor him," said Taylor, who was accompanied by Janis Gillrie, a volunteer public relations spokeswoman from Tampa.

He mentioned other commonalities with Christians. Mormons believe in the Bible, share a concern for the poor and work with other faiths to help those in need.

"We're not Catholic. We're not Protestant," Taylor said. "We are restored New Testament Christians. We believe in the restoration of the original Christian church that Jesus Christ originated on Earth, with a lay ministry, apostles and people of faith who are trying to emulate Jesus Christ."

The church's additional scriptures, the Book of Mormon - which tells about Jesus' ministry in America after his resurrection - the Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants, help Mormons better understand Jesus Christ, he said.

Polygamy has been outlawed for 117 years by the church, Taylor said. Additionally, although black males were not given the priesthood until 1978 - when church leaders received a revelation that the policy should be changed - news of their acceptance "was greeted with joy. It was greeted with rejoicing," he said.

Today, Taylor said, Mormons are diverse, with a quarter-million believers in Africa. Blacks are also in leadership positions, he said.

As for the secret temple rites, the most important of which is the "sealing" of husbands, wives and children as families for eternity, Taylor said, "I wouldn't refer to them as secret. I would refer to them as sacred."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or 727 892-2283.

Fast Facts:

By the numbers

6-million members in the United States

13-million members worldwide

20,000 chapels worldwide

Mormons in politics

16 in the U.S. Congress

Michael Leavitt, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services

Mitt Romney, presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor

Harry Reid, Senate majority leader

Famous Mormons

Marie Osmond

Gladys Knight

Health codes forbid: Coffee, tea, alcohol, illegal drugs and tobacco.