LAS VEGAS — A couple of undergrads were horsing around in the hallway when I entered the building.
At the Latter Day Saints Institute of Religion Student Center on the campus of University of Nevada-Las Vegas, young Mormons have heated discussions about politics over ping-pong and candy. Lots of candy. Several baskets of candy — in bowls on the front desk, on a coffee table, in the hallway.
I grabbed a piece as I asked the receptionist if I could speak to someone about Mitt Romney and Mormon politics. “LDS,” she kindly corrected me with a smile. I blushed. From that moment on, I’ve used LDS -— not Mormon —- when talking with members of the Church.
She led me to the office of Institute Director Garth Rasmussen, whom she referred to as Brother Rasmussen. The LDS Doctrine and Covenants book, labeled and marked with color-coded tags, lay open on his desk. Within minutes, Brother Rasmussen was openly sharing his gospel with me.
Here’s the thing, though: Rasmussen said he was happy to talk with me about politics, provided I knew that they were his opinions and not those of the LDS Church writ large. I said absolutely, and we started discussing political issues from healthcare to welfare. About the latter, he got particularly passionate, and shared with me a Mormon parable called the “Gullible Gulls.”
Long ago, on the Eastern Seaboard, fishermen brought in big hauls of their daily catch on big fishing boats. The seagulls swarmed the ports, scavenging for scraps. But eventually the men and their boats had to move on to other seas, and the gulls began to starve. Gulls, though, are actually great fishers! They had become so accustomed to easy pickings that they forgot how to fish, and never taught their young how to fish. And so they went hungry.
This is the parable Brother Rasmussen and other Church leaders use to explain their opposition to government welfare. Work is a fundamental tenant of the LDS religion. Idleness, “getting handouts” in the words of Rasmussen, is anathema to their beliefs.
That’s why Brother Rasmussen likes Mitt Romney for the Republican Presidential nomination. In our conversation, it became clear he believes Romney will uphold values instilled from his Mormon upbringing.
Members of the LDS faith figure heavily into this election —- Republican Party frontrunner Mitt Romney and former candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. are both LDS members. Both were poised to benefit from the large number of Mormons in the American West; according to a 2010 Gallup poll self-identified Mormons are the most Republican and conservative voting bloc of any of the major religious groups in America.
But the two candidates have had very different experiences in this campaign. With Huntsman as governor from 2005 to 2009, Utah was among the top states in job growth in the nation. His public approval ratings were extremely high -– consistently over 80% — and during his tenure the Pew Center ranked Utah the best-managed state in the union.
But when I mentioned Huntsman’s name to Rasmussen, his look soured.
Rasmussen said that Huntsman “waffled” on his affiliation with the LDS Church. In an interview with Fortune magazine in 2010, Huntsman said, “I can’t say I’m overly religious. I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies.” And during a 2011 interview with Time magazine, Huntsman said: “I’m a spiritual person, and very proud of my roots.” But when asked whether he was active in the Mormon Church, he replied, “That’s tough to define.”
Not for Brother Rasmussen.
He put it this way: “You’re either in or you’re out” of the LDS Church. At 6.1 million LDS members and counting, Huntsman’s biggest mistake may not have been working under President Barack Obama, for whom he served as Ambassador to China, or believing in climate change. Instead, not embracing his Mormon roots might have closed the door for his hopes among a significant conservative constituency.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is regarded as an exemplary LDS leader. In addition to being a successful businessman, Romney was Stake President for the LDS Church in Massachusetts, presiding over as many as 6,000 LDS citizens over a period of eight years, between 1986 and 1994. The position of Stake President is unpaid, and can require 30 hour workweeks within the Church.
Romney has not been particularly effusive about his religion during this campaign, even in front of heavily Mormon audiences. But he does emphasize his Christian values, and in a now-famous “Faith in America” speech from 2007, he affirmed his allegiance to the LDS Church: “I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it.”
Romney has lived in Massachusetts since 1971, but the ease and comfort with which he conducts himself here in Nevada makes it clear that he —- like many LDS -— is most at home in the West. Nevada has the fourth highest population of Mormons in the country, and Mormons reside “overwhelmingly” in Western states like Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and Washington.
There is a large LDS Temple on the outskirts of Las Vegas, an affluent area that marks the absolute limits of the city before the landscape turns over to gorgeous red mountains. The area is peppered with Romney campaign signs.
Despite being only 7% of Nevada’s population, in the 2008 Republican primary, Mormons made up a quarter of Nevada’s caucus voters —- with 95% voting for Romney. The same turnout is likely to occur this year.
Last night at the final Romney rally before Saturday’s caucuses, I spoke with Jennifer Salter, an LDS member and mother who lives in Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas. She told me her sister knew Romney personally and holds him in high regard as a candidate and a person. For her, though, it was Romney’s role in the Utah Olympics that compelled her vote. “There was a scandal, things were breaking down, and he really came in and reinvigorated the whole thing. He saved the Olympics.”
Salter beamed as she spoke, and said nothing negative about any other candidate -— it was clear that she was there to support Romney, not bash Obama. I asked her whether she thought Romney could win against Obama, and, more importantly, what that would mean for the LDS Church.
“I’m really hoping that we can change people’s opinion about the Church,” Salter said. “We are a good people. We do good things. We get bashed—in the press, people write about us.” Romney, she thinks, will be a great representative of the Church.
Indeed, Romney has flourished where Huntsman faltered, affirming his Mormon roots and “the faith of [his] fathers,” as he said in his 2007 speech.
Disillusioned as he was with Jon Hunstman, Brother Rasmussen spoke reverently about his father, Jon Huntsman Sr. Rasmussen’s face lit up as he described him, a billionaire philanthropist and business tycoon. Jon Huntsman Sr. seems to be a source of pride and a model for all LDS members, with a Mormon pedigree that is unparalleled —- well, almost.
Huntsman Jr. and Romney are distant cousins, descendants of one of the founding members of the Mormon Church, Parley P. Pratt. But only one of them is potentially poised to take their faith to the highest office in the country.