Anti-Mormon screed targets Romney

SUMMARY: A strident letter attacks Romney's religion and argues -- falsely -- that Mormons want to rescind the U.S. Constitution.

At first glance, it sounds like an anonymous chain e-mail attack: Mitt Romney is dangerous because he's a Mormon and Mormons want to take over the government!

The experts on Mormonism we contacted said the claim is ridiculous. It's also at odds with the official teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the LDS Church.

But this attack is not anonymous –- it's authored by John M. Boyd, a video producer who describes himself as a conservative Christian and cult expert. Boyd makes many controversial charges, many of them concerning Mormon theology. Among the most pertinent claims from a political point of view:

• Mormonism "has a devious plan for our country, a plan that will see the Constitution thrown out and replaced by a theocracy."

• Romney is "a Temple Mormon and High Priest."

• Romney plans to institute "a Mormon one-world government run by the church elders under the leadership of their prophet."

• The e-mail also says Mormonism teaches that Jesus and the Devil are brothers, an issue Mike Huckabee raised during an interview with the New York Times Magazine. (Huckabee later apologized.)

Mormons we interviewed said the letter is a bigoted attack on their religion. But, like the anonymous chain e-mails we've examined, it raises issues that gets voters talking.

We weren't able to check whether Romney is a "High Priest" in the Mormon church because his campaign wouldn't answer our question about it. Instead, they provided this statement:

"It is sad and unfortunate that this kind of bigotry has been employed. There is absolutely no place for these attacks in American politics. Governor Romney isn't going to dwell on attacks from his opponents. Rather, his campaign is about the issues that are important to the American people, and bringing conservative change to Washington."

Boyd sent out the letter in the name of a recently formed political action committee called Freedom Defense Advocates, but he said he was motivated not by politics, but by his beliefs as a nondenominational Christian. He said he is conservative, but not affiliated with any campaign and hasn't decided who he's supporting for the Republican nomination.

"This is about the theological issues that surround the religion of one of the candidates, who happens to be Mitt Romney," Boyd said. "I classify the Mormon Church as a cult."

The letter adds an entrepreneurial kicker at the end –- it urges readers to send in money for DVDs that attack the Mormon church.

Boyd declined to name the backers of Freedom Defense Advocates, but said the letter had been mailed to "thousands of people throughout the whole of the United States … a very sizable amount."

Mormons and non-Mormons we interviewed found the letter to be offensive.

If Romney is a High Priest, it doesn't indicate he has a particularly significant title with the Mormon Church, according to Mormon supporters we interviewed.

"Pretty much any active male over the age of 50 is going to be a High Priest," said Scott Gordon, president of the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research, a nonprofit organization that explains and defends Mormonism. "It's extremely common."

"'High Priest' sounds strange to people outside the Mormon Church," said Daniel Peterson, a professor with the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. "But in fact it's a very common office. There are easily 100,000 or maybe more High Priests in the church."

Mormon congregations in every city in the country typically have several High Priests, he said.

More pertinently, we weren't able to find any evidence to back up Boyd's claims that Mormons seek to take over the government. That idea flies in the face of church teaching, and several experts we interviewed called it a conspiracy theory. Boyd himself said it wasn't the kind of thing that would happen immediately, but could happen if Romney believed the end of the world was near. The Truth-O-Meter did not find this argument convincing.

Perhaps the deeper issue in the Romney letter is the divisions it reveals between some evangelical Christians and Mormons. Surveys indicate that a majority of both groups tend to be Republican.

Kathleen Flake, a professor of religious history at Vanderbilt University who studies the Mormon faith and is Mormon herself, said the letter reflects longstanding antagonism between Mormons and fundamentalist Christians, particularly Baptists.

Flake is the author of "The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle," a book about the Republican from Utah who took his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1903. After Smoot's win, a broad coalition of Protestant churches sought to expel him from the Senate based on his religion. The Senate conducted hearings for several years, ultimately voting in 1907 to let Smoot keep his seat; Smoot went on to serve until 1933.

"I think you see the same antagonists now as you saw in 1907, that religious antagonism," Flake said. "Baptists have been ragging on the Mormons for 125 years and they're not going to stop in the 21st century."

Mormons call themselves Christians and emphasize that Jesus Christ is part of their religion's formal name. But some members of other Christian denominations say that Mormon beliefs diverge too much from traditional Christian orthodoxy to be part of the same religion.

The theological differences between Mormons and other Christians are complex and multifaceted. But significant areas of theological difference involve holy scripture and the concept of God.

Mormons believe Joseph Smith, the church's founder who died in 1844, discovered additional books of scripture in the United States. Those books form the Book of Mormon, which Mormons consider as scripture in addition to the Bible.

Their concept of the nature of God differs as well. Protestants and Roman Catholics believe that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are different aspects of one being who has existed eternally. Mormons believe that God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are separate entities, and that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are subordinate to God the Father.

The Mormon belief that God the Father created all things is the root of the "Jesus and the Devil are brothers" claim. It's based on a kernel of truth, but distorted. Under Mormon teaching, God created everyone, so every person or being who has ever existed is Jesus' brother or sister.

Flake said she believes most voters want to know that their president is a spiritual person with good morals, but the particulars of their faith are not as important.

"I don't think the majority of Americans want to engage in religious battles. They tire of them quickly, and they have a fundamental distrust of people who take their religious doctrines into the public square," she said.