The Mormon Moment -- Postponed

FILE - This April 27, 2006 file photo shows the sun setting behind the Mormon Temple, the centerpiece of Temple Square, in Sa
FILE - This April 27, 2006 file photo shows the sun setting behind the Mormon Temple, the centerpiece of Temple Square, in Salt Lake City. Clergy and spiritual leaders will give invocations and benedictions each day at the Republican National Convention. Will Mitt Romney ask anyone from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to offer a blessing? (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac, File)

In the last few months, considerable attention has been devoted to Mitt Romney's tax returns and his former company's "job-creating performance," but there has been insufficient discussion about what arguably has had the greatest role in shaping who he is and how he views the world: his Mormon religion.

Despite his reluctance to address the subject directly, public interest in Mormonism remains at historic levels. His "Mormon Moment" is laden with obligation: never in the history of the United States has an ordained minister been a major party's candidate for the presidency. The Mormon Church has a lay priesthood, and by virtue of his ordination to the offices of Bishop and Stake President, Romney has occupied ecclesiastical positions equivalent to those within the Roman Catholic Church of Priest and Bishop. Were a Catholic Bishop to run for the presidency, there would doubtless be a demand that he address aspects of his religion in far greater detail than would be required of candidates never ordained to the ministry -- and thus Gov. Romney's obligation.

But it is also a moment of opportunity: Ever since Joseph Smith founded Mormonism in 1830, no other American religion has aroused so much fear and hatred; none has been the object of so much misinformation, falsehood -- and persecution. The hearings on the seating of Utah Senator and Mormon Apostle Reed Smoot a century ago gained Mormonism the dubious distinction of being the only religion ever to be put on trial by the United States Congress.

In ever-shifting stereotypes, Mormons have been cast as polygamists or pioneer heroes, as subversives or super-patriots; but the images have always been thin, selective and without complexity. Few know what the Mormons really are -- or even what they claim to be -- and yet Americans have never been more curious, never more open to a deeper understanding of this (in Mormons' own term) "peculiar" religion. Comprising only 2 percent of the population of the United States, mostly in western states, they are disproportionately represented in the United States Congress (3 percent), and particularly in the Senate (5 percent), where Harry Reid, the Majority Leader, is the highest-ranking Mormon ever to serve in the Federal Government. Well-known, respected Mormons are found throughout the worlds of entertainment, academia, athletics and especially business. Yet other aspects of contemporary Mormonism invite misunderstanding and suspicion, particularly the exclusion of non-Mormons from all operating Mormon temples, and the common misconception that Mormons still practice polygamy.

Religious scholar Martin Marty has observed, "Mormon beginnings are so recent there is really no place to hide." And so at this moment of unprecedented attention, Mormonism also faces the challenges of modernity. Its gaudy, extravagant, even wild early story -- which is also the basis of its theology -- is a focal point of academic inquiry that continually challenges traditional beliefs. What is history? What is myth? What remains when the one displaces the other? How does Mormonism deal with its brightest lights, and with its darkest shadows?

With this in mind, we invite Gov. Romney to seize the opportunity to clear away the fog that continues to obscure a religion whose effect can be so powerful -- and so positive -- that it led his father George to proclaim in 1968, "I am completely the product of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." We invite him to address, in particular, the following questions:

1. How have your early experiences within the Mormon Church -- particularly your two-year proselytizing mission to France and your service as Bishop and Stake President -- shaped your character and your worldview?

2. How does Mormonism's boundless optimism, which transcends even death in a manner unlike any other religion, shape your vision of America's present and future?

3. All religions have fabulous foundational stories. The Mormons are no exception. The difference is that their theology is younger and famously literal. It tells us that God has a body, that there is a plurality of Gods who eat and drink and mate as we do, that the golden plates were real, and that when we die there is a concrete and specific heaven where families are reunited. How has the singular physicality of your faith shaped your view of the world, not only as a private citizen but as a national leader?

4. When Mormons are asked about Joseph Smith's powerful final vision about man becoming God, "God-like" is almost always substituted for becoming God. But Mormonism's oft-quoted tenet is unambiguous: "As God is, man may become." Can you explain this core belief in a way that addresses the charge of blasphemy made by other religions?

5. Why do your new positions on immigration, social welfare, gay rights and abortion differ from official positions of the Mormon Church? Can you place these differences in a context that reassures Americans that Mormonism is not a philosophical monolith -- that indeed there is ample room within the label of "devout Mormon" for people as diverse as you and Senator Harry Reid?

6. What your church labels "sacred" is frequently termed by others "secret" or even "sinister," leading many to conclude that Mormons may not always be telling us what they truly believe. How can you assuage these suspicions by articulating your beliefs?

7. Given that your church's highest leadership councils consist entirely of white males, that it denies its lay priesthood to women and that it played the decisive role in the passage of California's Proposition 8, how can you assure the American public that the composition of your administration and the policies that you would pursue would be reflective of, and responsive to, the diversity that is the foundation of this nation's strength?

8. When asked about the part of his Baptist faith that meant most to him personally and as the nation's leader, President Clinton spoke movingly -- and in his words --a bout "the God of second chances." Human fallibility and the possibility of divine redemption -- these were Clinton's themes. What element of Mormon history or theology has had special resonance for you and has shaped your view of human nature, and of God?

9. Of all the misconceptions surrounding your religion, which one has offended you the most? Or, to interject a lighter note, what misinformation or stereotype has caused you to roll your eyes and even laugh when you are with your Mormon friends?

We realize that in addressing these issues, Gov. Romney would likely open himself to criticism from some quarters. However, the office to which he aspires demands of its aspirants a level of openness and clarity that he has yet to reach. Ironically, his reluctance to be open about his religion only reinforces the last and arguably most enduring of all Mormon stereotypes: its secrecy. Given the overwhelming importance of his religion in shaping who he is and how he views the world, we see the above questions as an opportunity for him to begin to emerge from obscurity.

Helen C. Whitney is a documentary filmmaker who produced the four hour PBS series, "The Mormons." Gregory A. Prince is a biologist, author and consultant on Ms. Whitney's documentary. Dr. Prince is a practicing Latter-day Saint.