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Mormon in America: Latter-day Saints on 2012 election and significance of Romney campaign

By Jessica Hopper and Ronnie Polidoro
Rock Center

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say that their faith has experienced increased attention and scrutiny as one of their most prominent members, Mitt Romney, prepares to accept the Republican presidential nomination.

"His candidacy has shed some light on our faith and I get more questions now about being a Latter-day Saint than I did before. So I think that's a great thing, that's a positive thing," said Al Jackson.

Al Jackson's wife, Juleen, said that she hopes the country would accept an LDS president. The Jackson couple are raising their five kids in a traditional Mormon home in Salt Lake City, Utah.

"I feel like even though I don't know Mitt Romney personally, I know what he does. He prays morning and night. He prays with his wife. He loves his children. He studies the scripture. I believe that probably motivates him a lot in some of the things he's done in the past and the course of his direction in the future," Juleen Jackson said.

Governor Romney has rarely spoken publicly about his faith while on the campaign trail. Recently, he allowed reporters to follow him to church services.

In an interview with NBC Nightly News on July 25, Romney talked about his faith with Brian Williams, saying that his commitment of giving 10 percent of his income and time to help others has "enriched" he and his wife's lives.

"I'm very proud of my heritage. Without question, I'm a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some call that the Mormon Church, that's fine with me. I'll talk about my experiences in the Church. There's no question they've helped shape my perspective," Romney told Williams.

David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue and Azul Airlines, said that Romney's faith has prepared him to be a presidential candidate.

"I don't think there's been a person that's run for president of the United States that's spent more one-on-one time helping people, counseling people in kind of the 17 years or so of full-time service that Mitt had in talking one-on-one to his congregation trying to lift those people up," Neeleman said.

Neeleman has held fundraisers for Romney at his Connecticut home. The low-cost fundraisers have involved Neeleman's nine children cooking food that he buys at Costco. 

"It's a very thrifty, Mormon, no-alcohol  fundraiser and so he kind of likes those," Neeleman said.

While they might be thrifty, one of Neeleman's events raised over a million dollars for Romney's campaign.

"He personally when you sit with him or you talk to him or if you're in a small group setting or you listen to what he has to say, you don't get that impression at all that he's aloof and you know, really not caring. Maybe on TV he may come across as that and I think under the backdrop of kind of rich guy, but it's really not the case at all," Neeleman said.

Some members of the church, while not siding with Romney politically, say that he is in a tough position when it comes to discussing his religion.

"Mitt Romney is in a really difficult position when it comes to talking about his faith. I do not envy him," said Joanna Brooks, author of The Book of Mormon Girl.  "There is widespread misunderstanding about Mormonism.  I hope that will change this year as people get to know us a little better as human beings."

Brooks calls herself a feminist and while she disagrees with many of Romney's political philosophies, she says that he is a very "familiar figure" to her.

"Mitt Romney reminds me of so many of the Mormon men I know-- his sense of duty, he's a little bit buttoned-up, he's a little bit private, feels a lot of responsibility you can tell. So I have a lot of affections for Mitt Romney," Brooks said.

Mitch Mayne, an openly gay man who serves as executive secretary to the Church's San Francisco bishop, said that the attention swirling around Romney and the Mormon church has created a "Mormon moment."

Mayne, who considers himself a Democrat, says that Romney doesn't owe it to the public to talk about his religion.

"I don't care what he does on Sunday. What I care about is whether or not he can do the job.  I'm not entirely convinced that Mitt Romney can do the job, but that's based on his credentials and his history. It's not based on his religion," Mayne said.

Even while Mayne doesn't believe Romney should be expected to talk about his religion any more than other candidates, he believes he and his fellow church members can seize the increased attention on their faith to dispel misunderstandings about the Church.

"If we as Mormons want to maximize what we call this Mormon moment and we want our, you know, our candidate to win, we as a faith need to step up and do exactly what we're doing with you today.  And that is begin to talk about our faith, begin to open the robes, begin to, you know, dissolve some of the mystery and the myth around Mormonism and really portray who we are," Mayne said.

Editor's Note: Rock Center's hour-long look at the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 'Mormon in America,' airs Thursday, Aug. 23 at 10pm/9c on NBC.