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Latter-day candidate 

Editor's note: This story was updated at 11:20 a.m., Thursday, to reflect that Steve Cox is the city's chief of economic vitality and innovation, not mayoral chief of staff.

Mitt Romney isn't the first member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to run for president; neither was his father, George, who was unsuccessful in 1968. That distinction lies with the church's founder, Joseph Smith, way back in 1844.

But like his father and Smith before him, Romney has found his faith to be an issue of controversy and scrutiny.

Polls show that Americans have mixed views of LDS, a worldwide religion of 14.2 million members. And that's no surprise: In recent years, Mormonism has received all kinds of attention. On one end, you have Romney's 2008 and 2012 campaigns and the church's own "I'm a Mormon" publicity push. On the other, there are less flattering portrayals in TV shows like Big Love and Sister Wives — and of course The Book of Mormon, the Broadway musical taunt from the South Park creators.

Kevin Woodward, a local Mormon leader, says there are roughly 16,000 LDS members locally. Among them are city Chief of Economic Vitality and Innovation Steve Cox, homebuilder and one-time mayoral candidate Brian Bahr, Monument Police Chief Jacob Shirk, and El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams.

Another is John Leavitt, senior communications specialist for the city. Like any good PR person, in all the chatter he sees "a wonderful opportunity."

"It's an opportunity for the church to clarify some issues, to correct some misconceptions," he says. "It's not always that people are interested in who you are, or what you believe."

But some people have to work harder to get comfortable with the higher profile.

Moment in the sun

"We are grateful for the publicity and made nervous by the publicity," says Sam Gappmayer, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, who's also a Mormon.

"Like any organization, there are difficult points in our history. I don't meet a Catholic and immediately think of the Inquisition, because all of that has been normalized. And as difficult periods in our history come to be known, it will be recognized that we don't hold to those anymore. But it will be difficult."

Leavitt recalls telling a book club that during his life-long involvement in the church, he had never met a polygamist. It was, to his surprise, a shocking statement, "because the thought is that, since polygamy is so closely associated with the church, everyone would know a polygamist."

Fact is, although some cases of polygamists who identify as Mormon have continued to emerge, polygamy has been officially disallowed by the church since the late 1800s.

Of course, that's not to say Mormons' stance on marriage is completely without controversy. LDS did take an aggressive stand in support of Proposition 8 in California, the voter-approved 2008 ballot measure — since overturned — to ban same-sex marriage.

The stance was hardly unpopular in Colorado Springs, but it did represent a political foray that in some circles put Mormons on the spot. Especially because the church steps out of other realms of politics; it refuses to endorse political parties or candidates.

"Usually, as campaign season ramps up, there's a letter that from the leadership," says Leavitt, "that says, just remember, we don't support candidates or political parties. That's so ingrained in us. We can have personal political points of view, but if we are put in a position where we are representing the church, it's very clear."

So while Romney could be the first Mormon president, neither the church nor its representatives are going to be cheering him on publicly.

Uncomfortable exposure

It's hard to imagine that the attention the church is receiving now is any more unnerving than knocking on a stranger's door and presenting your faith for derision, or worse. Members of LDS are used to being in uncomfortable conversations.

Gappmayer says he did his mission in southern Germany, while a secular movement swept across Europe. And he didn't speak German all that well.

"It was crazy," he says. "But, you know, I feel very fortunate to have had this in my life. The opportunities that my involvement in the church has afforded me and my family for growth, for service and connections to other people, for a metaphysical structure, this is something that I value very deeply."

That's why, when occasionally mocked by those on the left, he's undaunted. Same goes for being shunned by the right.

According to a Vanderbilt University poll, "31 percent of Southern evangelical Republicans would not vote for a 'qualified Mormon' for president." Nationwide, that number is 20 percent. A Southern Baptist affiliate polled 1,000 Protestant pastors and found that 3 of 4 do not believe Mormons to be Christians.

Wayne Williams doesn't seem too worried for fellow Republican Romney.

"Governor Romney has always made it very clear that he is running for president," he says, "and not to be anyone's minister."

For his part, Williams says faith has never hindered his political career in this evangelical stronghold; two terms as a county commissioner preceded his becoming clerk.

"In fact, when I ran for county commissioner, the seconds to my nomination included the president of the Colorado Christian Coalition and a vice-president for public policy at Focus on the Family," he says. "People are much more interested in what you believe in respect of government, than how you worship Christ on Sunday."

chet@csindy.com

  • Mitt Romney's neverending quest for the GOP nomination keeps local Mormons on guard.

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