(Photo: REUTERS/George Frey)
While GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney is not known for a willingness to discuss his Mormon faith in detail, at least during his political speeches, a family member and former Mormon has come out to accuse The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of being a cult and a fraud.
"I became convinced that it's a fraud," Park Romney, an ex-Mormon high priest and Romney's cousin, shared with the BBC. "I am alienated from my family. Their doctrine, their protocol and their culture as enforced by bishops encourages the families to disassociate themselves from the apostate."
Expanding on his reasons for why he was led to believe the LDS Church is a fraud, the Republican's cousin revealed:
"There's compelling evidence that the Mormon Church leaders knowingly and willfully misrepresent the historical truth of their origins and of the church for the purpose of deceiving their members into a state of mind that renders them exploitable."
However, members of the LDS Church disagree with Park Romney's accusations, and maintain that their religion is not a cult, and does not try to divide families by shunning members who have openly disagreed with the church's teachings.
"If I had a son or a daughter who left the church or was alienated or had a problem, I can tell you I would not cut that child out of family life," LDS Church elder Jeffrey Holland told the BBC. "We don't use that word and we don't know that practice," he said when asked about "shunning" ex-members.
"If that is what they believe, it's probably a good thing they leave, because we're not a cult," Holland continued. "I have chosen this church because of the faith that I feel and the inspiration that comes, but if people want to call us a cult, you can call us a cult. But we are 14 million and growing."
Mormonism, however, is still considered a fringe belief system by many Christians in the country, with some calling it a cult religion and asking people avoid voting for Romney based on his involvement with the LDS Church.
"Evangelical Christians should not vote for Mitt Romney because he's a Mormon, therefore not a real Christian," Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, has said on several ocassions.
"This nomination would be in the bag if it weren't for the Mormon factor," John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, who works on the intersection of religion and politics, told the New York Times.
A recent poll by the Pew Forum revealed that Mormons themselves still do not feel they are being accepted by the larger American society, with 62 percent of Mormon respondents saying that Americans know little or nothing about Mormonism. No less than 46 percent of them also believe that Americans discriminate against Mormons – they identified only gays and Muslims as facing a higher level of discrimination in the U.S.
However, more than half – 63 percent -- believe that the acceptance of Mormonism is indeed on the rise, which is tied with Mitt Romney's surge in popularity and the increasing likelihood that he will become the Republican presidential nominee to challenge President Barack Obama in November's general election.