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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 Southern Baptist Convention has spent decades undermining the Mormon Church, possibly motivated by the realization that roughly 40 percent of LDS converts in 1980 had come from Baptist backgrounds. In 1981, when Salt Lake City unveiled plans for a new Mormon temple in Dallas, home at the time to the SBC's largest church (a distinction now held by Houston), trench warfare ensued.

The Baptists launched a national campaign to condemn the Latter-day Saints as a "cult," overhauling their Sunday School curriculum to highlight the "confrontation to Christianity" posed by Mormons. The message resonated strongly, gaining traction well beyond the Southern Baptists. In 1982, Florida's Jeremiah Films (a producer of fringe movies treating such topics as UFOs and Masonic conspiracy) released The God Makers, an oddball documentary that catalogs a laundry list of bizarre LDS doctrine and practices, some true, some distortions, and some patently false. Evangelical Christian churches across the Bible Belt and beyond screened the film.

Though social scientists generally refer to "New Religious Movements" and reserve the term "cultism" for specific psycho-sociological phenomena, Mormonism technically qualifies as a cult within Christian theology due to its deviance from orthodox Christian beliefs. It's a semantics issue with a sharp backhand.

"There is a lay use of the word cult that makes you think of the Branch Davidians or Heaven's Gate or some other bunch of nutjobs, and in that more popular use of the word people wince at the idea that Mormonism is a cult," admits Gary Ledbetter, communications director for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. "In the vernacular here when you say cult it sounds more harsh, but technically, yes, evangelical Christianity has always considered Mormonism a cult because they have an unorthodox view of the nature of Christ."

These lexical games have borne fruit. A Pew Research Center poll conducted last November found that when U.S. adults were asked for one word that best describes the Mormon religion, "cult" was the most commonly offered response. "Polygamy" followed, although the LDS church ended the practice in 1890. Widespread nescience among non-Mormons about LDS beliefs, and confusion and bad publicity generated by such incidents as the Warren Jeffs arrest have given critics plenty of ammunition.

Romney dodges stray bullets many of us never even see. For example, pundits have wondered why he sidesteps questions on his Mexican roots, which some Republicans see as a lure for Hispanic voters. After all, his famous father, former Michigan Governor George Romney, was born in Chihuahua in 1907. But Mitt wants to keep his family's Mexico story under wraps. The Chihuahua Mormon colony was founded by polygamists including Mitt Romney's great-grandfather Miles, who fled with his three wives to Mexico after the U.S. cracked down on LDS "plural marriages."

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