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Romney's challenge: What Bexar County's primaries could tell America about the anti-Mormon vote

Photo: Photo illustration by Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Photo illustration by Chuck Kerr

Photo: Steven Gilmore, License: N/A

Steven Gilmore

A new Mormon temple being constructed on Talley Road.

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The renegade Saint promptly founded his own Mormon sect (later merged with Joseph Smith III's Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, RLDS, in the Midwest). Floods destroyed that Zodiac settlement in 1851, and in 1854 Wight established a new colony in Bandera. Though it remains at odds with Salt Lake City, to this day the RLDS owns acreage in and around Bandera and even rents out campgrounds there to mainstream LDS San Antonio church retreats. Wight died in 1958 at yet another Mormon encampment even closer to home: today the site of the Lackland Air Force Base.

Another notorious and radical breakaway sect, the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, FLDS, originally headquartered in Arizona, also found fertile ground in Texas. In 2005, under the leadership of Prophet Warren Jeffs, the FLDS dedicated a temple near Eldorado. In fact, the West Texas dedication ceremony was the last public sighting of Jeffs, on the lam from several states on charges related to sexual abuse of minors and incest, until his Nevada arrest in 2006. Two years later, Texas authorities took legal custody of 416 children at the ranch, requested Jeffs' extradition, and in 2011 a Texas jury sentenced Jeffs to life in prison for the sexual assault of minors.

Mainstream Mormonism arrived more gradually to our city as its population overall expanded and spread beyond Utah. Membership surged in Texas from 50,000 in 1977 to 120,000 in 1984, when the Dallas Temple was completed. In the 1980s, the LDS ranks in Bexar grew at more than triple the rate of the county's population growth, according to official numbers reported to the Association of Religion Data Archives. Mormon representation went from 0.5 percent of Bexar's population to 0.7 percent by 1990. By the year 2000, it reached 0.9 percent, and the LDS claimed roughly 20,000 adherents in Bexar County as of early 2012, or some 1.1 percent.

In response to this growth rate, Salt Lake City leaders decided to build a temple in San Antonio, the fourth in the state, in 2001. They chose the highest point in the city. The structure was completed in 2005, and despite public controversy, attracted more than 50,000 locals to tour the facility before it was, like all temples, shuttered to those who do not hold a temple "recommend" letter from their bishop.

Cultivating Mistrust

When the Great Christian Hope Rick Perry announced his ill-fated candidacy at a major national political conference of Christian conservative groups in Washington, D.C., he was introduced by Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, who attacked Romney, blasting the Mormon Church as a "cult" and stating that Romney "is not a Christian."

"Every true, born-again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian," Jeffress said.

Though Mormons consider themselves Christian, and a majority of non-Mormon U.S. adults do, too, only 35 percent of white evangelical Protestants agree, according to a recent national survey by the Pew Research Center. "Religion has long been a factor in American politics," notes William Martin, Senior Fellow for the Religion and Public Policy at Rice University's Baker Institute. "Prejudice against Catholics led many Southern Baptists and other Protestants to oppose John F. Kennedy's candidacy. Prejudice against Catholics has clearly waned, with [Newt] Gingrich and [Rick] Santorum both drawing support from evangelical Christians, who might favor a Protestant candidate, but are wary of supporting Mitt Romney at least in part because he is a Mormon, which many, probably most, evangelicals do not regard as a Christian denomination."

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