The professor writes:
As a Mormon who grew up in Utah, and now counts herself among the left-leaning atheists of East Coast academia, it was a relief to hear you state what to me is so obvious and yet so rarely seems to be recognized or believed: Mormons belong to a religion, not a cult. American Mormons are, on the whole, almost exactly like other similar populations in the American West--conservative, predominantly white (but demographically changing), wary of having Feds and other outsiders try to tell them what to do (though happy to have federal funds pay for their highways and development projects).
Take away the rather small set of odd sounding theological ideas and folk beliefs distinct to Mormons (most of which have little relevance to their everyday lives), and you have a collection of wholly ordinary folks--so much so that many of us leave the intermountain "Jello Belt" as soon as we get the chance. The "cult" characterization is mystifying to me. Yes, Mormons prize obedience to authority (as long as it's Mormon authority) but that's true of the vast majority of religious people. But Mormons can and do walk away from the church everyday. They also tend to be more educated than other Americans. And while we have always had our share of crackpots and fanatics, most folks are much more comfortable with moderation.
For specific reasons pertaining to Mormon theology, and the age and insular backgrounds of the highest church leaders, gay and lesbian questions are turning out to be an obstacle the church will have a very hard time coping with. In my opinion, the leaders have done a terribly served their own families and gay members by becoming so politically active in opposition to gay civil rights. But on almost every other political question, the church hierarchy doesn't tend to risk losing anyone's good will over partisan battles. Moderation and good PR are the watchwords.
I can mostly understand the dire alarm that some evangelicals have about the prospect of a Mormon president; they tend to think that all religious folk would make doctrine the absolute foundation of their political vision, as they would. But why are liberals so hysterical? The two Mormon GOP candidates are like most educated, upper-middle-class Mormons I know: pretty smart, pragmatic folk who are far more comfortable in the role of problem-solver than prophet or culture warrior. How is it that liberals and independents don't look at the GOP roster and see that two most reasonable and knowledgeable people by *far* are the two Mormons?
Alas, one of those two is a hollow man who believes too little, not too much, but that's not the fault of his religion.