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UT professor explains Mormonism, Romney view

TAMPA - Mitt Romney is Mormon – but does that make him Christian? Does he belong to a cult? Is he a polygamist? People have many misconceptions about Mormonism and plenty of questions about the presidential candidate's beliefs. But while the religion has its quirks, its practices shouldn't cause people not to vote for the presumptive Republican nominee, said University of Tampa professor Ryan Cragun.
Cragun, a former Mormon and current assistant professor of sociology at UT, explains Mormon beliefs in a book he co-authored just in time for Romney's run for the White House. The book, entitled, "Could I Vote For a Mormon For President? An Election-Year Guide to Mitt Romney's Religion," is slated for release next month. "We're not opposed to Mormonism. We're not trying to destroy Mormonism," said Cragun, a 35-year-old Tampa resident. "We're trying to explain to people that – Oh, that's why they believe that." The Pew Research Center has reported a "significant segment of voters would be less likely" to vote for a Mormon candidate in the 2012 presidential election. Latter-day Saints, commonly called Mormons, overwhelmingly consider themselves to be Christians; but a Pew poll shows only 51 percent of Americans agree with that assertion. The most common description they gave of Mormonism was "cult." Cragun said his book answers about 20 of the most common questions people ask about Mormonism. Every chapter mentions Romney. It is possible not all of Romney's views fall in line with the religion's viewpoints, Cragun said. But Cragun said based on Romney's observant belief in Mormonism, "This is likely what Mitt Romney believes." Cragun has plenty of background on the religion. He was raised Mormon, grew up in a small town in Mormon-heavy Utah and earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Utah. He served as a missionary from 1996 to 1998. He is past president of the Mormon Social Science Association and co-authored "Mormons in the United States 1990-2008: Socio-Demographic Trends and Regional Differences." About 10 years ago, Cragun left the Mormon Church after researching it and concluding "The Book of Mormon" is a work of fiction. He disagrees with the theology but said he doesn't harbor ill will. Cragun was drawn to writing a book about Mormonism and politics because there is so much misinformation about the religion. He said he and co-author Rick Phillips, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Florida, are experts on Mormonism and can provide an accurate depiction. "It was amazing to us to see all the misinformation and to see how poorly the general public understands it," Phillips said. "It cried out for some sort of objective explanation." The book explores Mormon beliefs and discusses how they might affect a Romney presidency. Chapters address Mormon views about feminism, abortion, homosexuality and race. They describe Mormon theology, history and practices. The book says a Mormon president would have no need to follow orders from Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City because those leaders generally are loath to tell politicians what to do. "I don't recall there were ever any accusations that he took marching orders from Salt Lake City when he was governor of Massachusetts," Phillips said. "The notion that he will take orders from Salt Lake City or that religion will specifically shape his policies or he'll do the bidding of the church is absurd." Among other topics in the book: Is Mormonism a cult? (It doesn't qualify, Cragun maintained.); Is Mormonism Christian? (It is, he said.); and Do Mormons really wear funny underwear? (They do, he said.) Other Mormon beliefs, Cragun said: Mormons believe God lives on a planet near a giant star named Kolob. They believe Jesus and Satan are brothers and that men can become gods. They believe God doesn't want them drinking coffee or tea – but that hot chocolate is permissible. Cragun's eBook costs $3.99, and the paperback costs $12.95. Information can be found at www.couldivoteforamormon.com. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded by Joseph Smith, the son of rural New York farmers, who published "The Book of Mormon" in 1830. Smith said an angel named Moroni sent him on a mission to find engraved metallic plates that were buried near his home. These plates, he said, were religious scriptures written by a prophet named Mormon. Mormon leader Brigham Young spread the religion and battled with the federal government, which viewed the Utah territory as a theocracy. The Mormon practice of polygamy outraged much of the country. Polygamy eventually was outlawed in Utah and banned by the mainstream church, though some fundamentalists continue the practice. Romney, a married father of five, is expected to face incumbent President Barack Obama in the general election. The Republican National Convention comes to Tampa in August. Romney, a 65-year-old Detroit native, served as a bishop in the Mormon Church and as governor of Massachusetts. He graduated from Brigham Young University and holds degrees from Harvard Law and Harvard Business schools. Past titles Romney has held within the church show he is devout, Cragun said. But the professor said that doesn't necessarily mean Romney is orthodox or believes 100 percent of what "The Book of Mormon" proclaims. According to The Los Angeles Times, when a voter asked Romney last year whether he should clarify his Mormon faith to fight misinformation, he said: "The great majority of American people want to select the person most capable of getting our country going again with strong values, a strong economy and a strong military. Among the things that are unique and exceptional about our country is the fact in America we recognize and appreciate differences in faith. We expect religious differences. "I am shaped by the Judeo-Christian values which I have and I hope those will hold me in good stead, as they have so far." As the election draws near, Cragun said, he and his co-author believe people should know the facts about Romney's religion. "We probably aren't going to vote for Mitt Romney, but it has nothing to do with his Mormonism," Cragun said. "It has to do with his politics."

Information from Tribune archives was used in this report. jpoltilove@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7691

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