Are Mormons Keeping Mitt Romney Afloat?

His victories in the Pacific Islands and American West show the power of a strong minority to boost a weak candidate in low turn-out contests.

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There are six kids in white shirts and black ties standing in a line. One steps forward and dances around the others, hissing and sneering like a bobcat. He moves to the front on the chorus and the boys start slapping their thighs in a steady one-two-three, one-two-three rhythm. The leader cries, "Grab the book from your pants!" They pull out a black book -- one-two-three. "Slap the book on your chest!" They slap away -- one-two-three. "Read the book, read the book, pray, pray!" One-two-three. "We've got the gospel, you get it, you get it?" Then they step towards the camera and wave their hands. "You come walk in the waters with meeee!" The boys fall to the floor in a fit of giggles. It's one of the odder sights on YouTube.

The book is The Book of Mormon and the boys are young missionaries. They are dancing a Mormon-themed version of the Maori war dance, or Haka -- just one of the many Mormon Haka videos posted on YouTube (if you want to see the dance done with real force, check out this version by by Mormons Elders Hopoate and Ofahulu in Australia.) This extraordinary cross-fertilization of Mormonism and Polynesian culture is quite common. It's a testament to the broad and growing reach of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- and hints at the political power of the Mormon diaspora.

In a primary season as competitive as 2012, every delegate counts. For that reason, the votes of Republican Pacific islanders living in American territories and Hawaii have gained an unusual degree of importance. Last Saturday, beleaguered front-runner Mitt Romney won GOP caucuses in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. On Tuesday he scooped victories in American Samoa and Hawaii. Together, these islands have given him at least 36 delegates -- a small number, perhaps, but one more hard-earned step towards the nomination. He came in third in the American deep South last night, but he still was the day's delegate winner, thanks to the island caucuses.

Romney's victories owed something to the Pacific islands' large population of Mormons. In fact, local members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may have proved crucial to winning each of these caucuses. It wouldn't be the first case of Mormons bailing out Romney this campaign season. They've also helped his candidacy in two critical Western states -- demonstrating that Mormons aren't just a great fundraising network, but a surprisingly powerful demographic force within the world of low-turnout GOP primaries and caucuses.

The Mormon presence in the Pacific islands is certainly substantial. There are an estimated 14,784 Mormons in American Samoa -- where only about 70 Republicans gathered to caucus Tuesday -- and 55,000 in Hawaii -- where more 10,000 Republicans turned out -- along with 1,971 in Guam, and 735 in the Northern Marianas. The heavy concentration of converts is no coincidence. Polynesians have a special place in Mormon theology. According to some Mormons, thousands of years ago a group of Israelites, led by the prophet Lehi, escaped Babylonian captivity and sailed to freedom in Central America. Their new civilization flourished until it was destroyed in a civil war between the Nephite and Lamanite factions in 400AD. The sinful Lamanites, who won, were distinguished by a dark colored skin and were the forebears of the Native Americans.

According to the Mormon Book of Alma, a mixed group of Nephites and Lamanites sailed to Polynesia in 55BC. They settled down peacefully and, mixing with migrants from Southeast Asia, became the modern Polynesians. Many Mormons thus believe that the Polynesians practice a religion that is very close to the early Israelite church -- a claim supported by the fact that they share several myths in common with the Hebrew tradition, including one about a great flood. In the Mormon mind, Polynesians have a covenanted role to play in religious history. Being dark skinned, they bear the "mark" of the Lamanites. But, as the apocalypse approaches, the Book of Mormon prophesizes that they shall become "a white and delightsome people" (NB, the word "white" was changed to "pure" in 1981).

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In fact, it was typical for Christian missionaries to claim that the Polynesians were a lost tribe of Israel: the first Protestant missionary to New Zealand in 1830 called the Maori "dispersed Jews." This helped justify the expense of evangelization, which continued apace during the 19th century. Mormons often get rough treatment when they try to spread their version of the Good News abroad. But in Polynesia they benefited from cultural norms about hospitality that made the locals natural converts. The LDS Church set up its first mission in Samoa in 1862 and, since then, it's been one of the most popular destinations for missionaries to go -- because Samoans have a culture of welcoming strangers and listen to what they have to say. Only local Protestant and Catholic churches resisted Mormon encroachment, retarding growth until after the Second World War. Since then, the American Samoan church has grown to a likely 22.5 percent of the population. The LDS Church puts the figure as high as 30 percent, and today's Republican vice chairman in American Samoa -- where Romney swept -- played football at Romney's alma mater, the Mormon-owned and operated Brigham Young University.

Presented by

Timothy Stanley

Tim Stanley is the author of three political history books (the latest on Hollywood’s influence) and is a contributor to CNN. He has published in The Atlantic, the National Review and the Washington Times.

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