Romney's candidacy helping to bring Mormonism into the mainstream
It is the final Sunday service before election day and Mormon bishop Michael Thomas is clearing up a few things with the congregation.
“As you all know, we do not support or direct people to support any particular candidate,” says Thomas, a slim man in his 40s dressed in a neat grey suit. “While we believe that it is important to have an input into public life, we wish to reaffirm our political neutrality.”
Formally, at least, the Mormon church does not support any candidate, even here in Boston where Mitt Romney served as a bishop – the equivalent of a lay parish priest – for several years.
But there’s no getting away from what a profound moment the Republican candidate’s election would be for this often marginalised and misunderstood faith.
Already, the US is having what some are calling a “Mormon moment”. Not only is Romney in contention for the most powerful elected position in the land, but an award-
winning Broadway musical about the Mormons has sold out, and the church has been running TV commercials featuring ordinary-looking Americans. It’s all shining a light on a religion founded in the 19th century in New York by Joseph Smith, who sought to restore what he felt was the true Christian church.
The faith has had a hard time, criticised by those who believe it promotes polygamy (it did, though not since the 1890s) or that it’s a sect (it’s the third-biggest religion in the US, with seven million members) or because of its ban on black people joining its lay priesthood (this was repealed in the late 1970s).
Here at the Mormon church – or meetinghouse, as its known – near Harvard, the congregation is a mix of well-dressed young men and women in their 20s and 30s. Mostly they are graduate students, along with a few members of the church.
The chapel is white and airy. There is no altar, stained glass or religious iconography. Nor is there kneeling or standing.
There are features that will be familiar to many: there is a blessing of bread and water, which are passed around, and hymns that sound similar to those at Protestant ceremonies. But what is most striking is the friendly and relaxed atmosphere. There is laughter and a few tears, as a stream of people head to the top of the church to discuss dilemmas or experiences where their faith has helped them.
This is a special “fast and testimony” service, held on the first Sunday of the month, when members abstain from food for a day and are encouraged to share personal stories of their faith.