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Mormons at Duke Differ Politically, but Agree on Faith

Romney candidacy viewed as positive for Mormon image

Bill Barlow

Regardless of whether they vote for Mitt Romney, Mormon students at Duke say his candidacy for president translates into positive exposure for their religion.

"Most Mormons feel it's a good thing for Mormons to have (Romney) there," said Ken Rogerson, a faculty lecturer in the Sanford School of Public Policy, Mormon and registered Independent, adding that his religion values political tolerance. "The Mormon church is serious about its nonpartisan stance," he noted.

Having prominent Mormon politicians in the public eye generally helps educate people about a religion that few Americans seem to know much about, said two Duke students who are Mormon.

"I think it is great" that Romney, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are Mormons,, said Adrienne Harreveld, a sophomore from Florida and president of Duke Democrats. "Our religion is definitely getting more attention, though not all the attention is what we want. Mormonism is not a cult. We don't practice polygamy, we don't worship Joseph Smith. We do think, 'Oh, what are they going to get wrong this time?'"  

Bill Barlow, a senior from California majoring in history and the primary blogger for the Duke College Republicans, agrees that political exposure for Mormons is better than publicity from something like the Book of Mormon, the Broadway musical that pokes fun at his religion.   

Barlow said he's gradually become more public about his religion and his political views while at Duke, despite being on a campus that tends to be more liberal than he is and where only about a dozen Mormon undergraduates and between 30 and 50 graduate and professional students attend regular church services. "Mormonism demands that you seek out the truth yourself, interrogate it, ask God and make the commitment to follow through with that investigation, even if results are difficult."

Barlow acknowledges that as far as politics go, he is probably more comfortable in some Mormon circles than Harreveld, even though church leaders proscribe political discussion in church. "Duke's Mormon community is very accepting," he said. "But I've heard anecdotes from elsewhere that sometimes liberals and Democrats feel isolated because there are so many more conservatives than liberals. I did say to Adrienne that we were going to have to be 'frenemies' - in our generation, it's whenever you have someone who is your friend and kind of competitor at same time." 

National polls indicate that Mormons are more politically conservative and Republican than the general public. Some predict that as many as 85 percent of the members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints will cast their ballots for Romney. Rogerson agreed. "Mormon Democrats who are public about it are rare," Rogerson said. "The fact that we have a young Mormon woman who is the head of Duke Democrats is a good thing for the faith."

Harreveld, for her part, said she sees a connection between being a Democrat and a Mormon. "The Democratic Party meshed more with my religion, with its focus on welfare programs and tax cuts for the middle class," she said. "A lot of principles taught in the New Testament are focused on welfare."

Harreveld said she has worked to convince her mother, a registered Republican, to vote for Obama. It's not easy, because her mother was pleased that Romney received the Republican nomination. "She said he practices my religion and he's going to be an honest person," Harreveld  said.  

She pointed out to her mother that Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, has said he wants to reduce the federal student loan program. "I kind of called my mom out," Harreveld said. "I receive federal student loans. Once I explained Paul Ryan's budget to her, she was like, 'Never mind.'"