Millennial Mormons Watch Romney with Anticipation and Anxiety

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Young Latter-day Saints of all political persuasions wonder whether the 2012 campaign will turn Romney into the Mormon John F. Kennedy.

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To understand young Mormons' obsession with Mitt Romney, consider Jimmer Fredette. Jimmermania was in full force in spring 2011 as Fredette, the prolific scorer for Brigham Young University's men's basketball team, rose to national prominence, lifting BYU to its highest ranking in two decades while reaching first-name and verb status in pop culture. Fredette's success inspired a genuine curiosity in the general populace about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as a sense of gratification from Mormons: Look how far he has come. He is one of us.

Looking at Fredette's significance for young Mormons, one can begin to feel the personal, visceral effect of Romney's success -- an impact arguably as important to Mormons as John F. Kennedy's was to Catholics in 1960 -- and what it could mean for millennial Mormons if he wins the Republican nomination. If he can beat back Newt Gingrich's recent surge, Romney would be the first Mormon to secure a U.S. presidential nomination from a major party and just the fourth non-Protestant to do so. He'd also be the first non-Protestant Republican to lead a presidential ticket. That has elevated Romney's status to a new level, above the ranks of other famous Mormons.

"Mitt Romney represents a really important figure in the overall historic scene of Mormonism as someone poised to be the Republican nominee, and as someone who could be the president of the United States," says David Campbell, a Mormon who is an associate professor of political science at Notre Dame and co-author of "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us." "The very fact that Mitt Romney represents their group is hugely important."

Many young conservative Mormons in America are lining up behind Romney, who represents more to them than just policy positions, a big family, and good hair. But among young Mormons more broadly, seeing one of their own in Romney -- and Jon Huntsman, to a lesser extent -- so close to the nomination is exciting, because it would suggest that their religion is not a barrier to the White House -- or at least a nomination. That's caused great excitement among the millennial generation of Mormons, especially those who live outside the Mormon enclaves in Utah and are used to being a religious minority.

"I think younger, politically involved Mormons kind of see Mitt as paving the way for us," says Kate Christensen, a sophomore political science major at Columbia University. "It's a big opportunity."

From the time she was born in Belmont, Mass., Christensen grew up with Romney as a church leader. His wife, Ann, taught early-morning seminaries for Christensen's sister and brother, and his oldest son, Matt Tagg, and his wife served as Second Ward youth leaders for Christensen. Now 20, Christensen is president of Columbia's LDS Student Association and social director for the university's College Republicans. As a young Mormon, she's in the rare position of having seen Romney as "a guy at church first and a political leader second," someone who made it clear that he wasn't above anyone else, she says.

"It's absolutely empowering," she says. "It's exciting to see anyone you identify with succeed. The dynamic between politics and religion is so complicated that it's empowering for people to know it's not impossible to pursue."

Mormonism remains both the most conservative and most Republican religious group in America. A Gallup Poll found that 59 percent of Mormons polled classified themselves as conservative, according to 2009 polling data. Just 8 percent of Mormons considered themselves to be liberal, the lowest of any of the polled religious groups.

When scholars of religion and politics look back on the Obama Administration, its inability to bring young conservative and independent Mormons aligned into the Democratic Party could look like a missed opportunity for generational culture change. In the 2008 Utah primary, Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton garnered a combined 126,000 votes. (Romney? Try almost 265,000 votes, good for 90 percent of the vote.) Just 1 percent of Obama's total votes in the race against Sen. John McCain came from Mormons, the same percentage Sen. John Kerry received in the 2004 general election.

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Timothy Bella is a journalist living in New York City.

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