(Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder)
J.W. Marriott, who heads the Marriott hotel chain, praised Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for bringing "positive attention" to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Marriott is a personal friend of Romney and, like Romney, a Mormon.
"Today we see the church coming out of obscurity, and we see that 90 percent of what has been written and said, including an hour on NBC, an hour an half on CNN, two front-page articles in the Washington Post, many articles in the national news about the church, 90 percent of it has been favorable," Marriott said after a church service Sunday, according to Reuters. "And that's a great tribute to Mitt and Ann and their family for living such an exemplary life."
The Marriotts are long-time family friends with the Romneys. Romney, whose real name is Willard Mitt Romney, was named after J.W. Marriott Jr.'s father, J. Willard Marriott Sr., who founded the hotel chain.
Romney is the first Latter-day Saint to win a major political party nomination and, if he wins, will be the nation's first Mormon president.
Many Americans view the LDS faith with suspicion. When a November 2011 Pew Research survey asked 2,001 respondents to provide one word that best describes the Mormon religion, the most common answer was "cult" (100). Other answers included "different" (55), "polygamy/bigamy" (49), "confused/confusing" (24), "strange" (18), "multiple marriages/wives" (17), "misguided" (14), "false" (13), "crazy" (12) and "odd" (10).
A July 2012 Pew Research survey asked 2,373 registered voters if they were comfortable or uncomfortable with Romney's religious faith. Thirteen percent answered uncomfortable. The rest answered comfortable (41 percent), it does not matter or they do not know (14 percent), or they do not know his religion (32 percent).
Due to public attitudes toward Mormonism, some pundits expected that Romney's faith would not be mentioned during the Republican National Convention last week in Tampa, Fla. To the contrary, though, Romney's faith became a key component during a convention that tried to help Americans better understand Romney's personal side, rather than simply his political persona.
The speakers included those who knew Romney as an LDS bishop. Grant Bennett, who served as an assistant to Romney when he was a bishop, spoke about the dedication he showed to that unpaid position.
"For one or two evenings each week and several hours every weekend -- week after week and year after year -- he met with those seeking help with the burdens of real life, burdens we all face at one time or another: unemployment, sickness, financial distress, loneliness," Bennett recalled.
Romney also mentioned his faith during his acceptance speech, saying, "We were Mormons and growing up in Michigan; that might have seemed unusual or out of place but I really don't remember it that way. My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to."
In a May webcast, Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, said that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been trying to become more mainstream and shed its image as a strange religion. Stetzer advised Christians to educate themselves about LDS doctrine.
"We're in a 'Mormon moment' so it requires helpful thinking and a clear understanding of Mormonism," Stetzer said.
With Romney in the national spotlight, evangelical leaders have sought to clarify the doctrinal differences between Latter-day Saints and Christians. At the same time, most have also emphasized that it is acceptable for a Christian to vote for a Mormon.
The views of evangelical voters appear to be in line with these leaders. A May poll showed that 67 percent of white evangelicals who believe that Mormonism is not the same as Christianity support Romney, which is about the same as all white evangelicals. A Brookings Institution study released in May even showed that Romney's LDS faith will help more than hurt his efforts to gain voter support.