The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, is America’s homegrown religion.
Founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, the Mormon movement began by embracing all that was already present in the American religious experience via Christianity.
However, the movement added to that experience by embracing additional Scriptures – the Book of Mormon.
Among other things found in the Book of Mormon is the assertion that Native Americans are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. The emotional impact of such a claim is very powerful.
Early settlers in America came with the idea that the new world would also be a new holy land flowing with milk and honey. The idea that ancestors of ancient Israel were already here was a compelling notion.
Of course, DNA evidence has established that Native Americans did not come from the Middle East but from Asia. But that has not deterred the growth of the Mormon Church.
With its strong emphasis on family and the church’s vigorous mission activity, the Church of Latter-Day Saints is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world.
Unfortunately, many Christians do not regard Mormons as holding to an authentic faith.
Southern Baptists and many evangelical groups regard Mormonism at best as a heresy and at worst a cult – although the size and scope of the Mormon Church seriously calls into question the continued designation as a cult.
Like it or not, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is on track to become a major world religion.
Mormons are everywhere in the mainstream of American life. They hold significant positions in education and business and as elected officials. The U.S. Senate features two well-known Mormons – Harry Reid of Nevada and Orrin Hatch of Utah.
There has even been a succession of Mormons who have made a bid for the presidency.
Joseph Smith was attempting to mount a campaign when he was assassinated in 1844. In 2000, Hatch launched an ill-fated campaign. A survey taken at the time found that 17 percent of Americans would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate under any circumstances.
But that may have changed. The intervening years have seen quite a shift in the meaning of religion. Piety these days has taken on a distinctly ideological cast.
Folks of differing faiths make common cause on a range of social concerns. A new orthodoxy has emerged around issues such as abortion, gay marriage, public display of the Ten Commandments and so on.
That brings us to Mitt Romney, former governor of the state of Massachusetts. Romney has emerged as a leading contender for the 2012 Republican presidential campaign.
And as is true for most Mormons, Romney is on the right side of many of the social issues championed by the political and religious right. The fact that he gets to the right side of those issues by means of his Mormon faith may or may not matter.
And it shouldn’t matter. The U.S. Constitution mandates that there is no religious test for public office.
But outside the law, out in the marketplace of American public opinion, it will be interesting to see how a Romney campaign will be received.
With faith and values grounded more in ideology than in theology, it will be interesting to see if America is ready for its first Mormon president.