Massachusetts, like much of America, was once so inhospitable to Mormons that the religion's founders, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, rounded up their early followers and ushered them west.
Nearly two centuries later, a Mormon has won the governorship in Massachusetts — a development remarkable for how little controversy it occasioned.
The election of Mitt Romney — an adherent of a faith shared by less than half of a percent of his fellow Massachusetts residents — demonstrates an increasing acceptance of Mormons in the United States, as well as the increasing willingness of Americans to elect members of minority faiths.
"Just as John F. Kennedy's election as president was a watershed event in having to remove stereotypes of Catholics, Mitt Romney's election is also symbolic of the fact that stereotypes are being eliminated," said Grant Bennett, a top local official of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormons are formally known.
Bennett, like other Mormon leaders in Massachusetts, expected Romney's candidacy this year to spark a burst of anti-Mormonism. Not only are Mormons a minority here, but their beliefs about the nature of God and the means to salvation are viewed with suspicion by many Catholic and Protestant theologians. The Mormons' last time in the spotlight here was a battle over their construction of a towering temple in Belmont, near Route 2.
Eight years ago, when Romney ran for the U.S. Senate against Edward M. Kennedy, his faith was a recurrent issue. This year, Romney's faith has appeared in news coverage only about half as often as it did in 1994, most notably when questions were raised about Romney's contribution to Brigham Young University, which, following church teaching, bars expressions of homosexuality.
"In '94, the issue of religion was mishandled, as the issue was raised in an awkward manner, and this year there was an increased sensitivity to make religion the third rail on both sides," said Scott Ferson, who worked as a political aide for the Kennedy campaign in 1994 and has since worked as a public-affairs consultant for the Mormon church.
Difficult to cast stones
Ferson said the discussion of religion in the campaign this year may have been limited in part because Catholic candidates — whose church has been roiled by controversy over its handling of sexual abuse by priests — could not criticize Romney's church without opening the door to questions about their own.
"Shannon O'Brien is Catholic, and there have been controversies this year in the Catholic Church, so setting aside religion was not only good practice, but also good politics," Ferson said.
Other observers say the campaign may have been affected by a heightened awareness of religious pluralism following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We're all more sensitive to these questions because of Sept. 11," said Alan Wolfe, the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.
Mormons have enjoyed considerable political success in Utah, and some success in other states. Romney's father, George W. Romney, served as governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969 and ran unsuccessfully for president; another Mormon, Evan Mecham, served as governor of Arizona from 1987 until 1988, when he was impeached and removed from office.
But Massachusetts has been slow to elect members of religious minorities to the corner office. For decades, only Congregationalists or Unitarians were elected, and the state didn't elect an openly Catholic governor until 1914.
Dukakis broke the trend
Romney is poised to become only the second governor of Massachusetts who is not a member of one of the Catholic or Protestant denominations that dominate westernChristianity. The first, Michael S. Dukakis, a member of the Greek Orthodox church, was elected governor in 1974, 1982, and 1986.
"When I started in the Legislature in '62, it was inconceivable that a Greek-American could be elected governor — it just wasn't in the ethnic cards," Dukakis said. "But people are now far more open and accepting."
Mormonism, the most successful religion founded in the United States, has been spreading rapidly. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declares 11.4 million adherents worldwide, including 5.2 million in the United States and 20,000 in Massachusetts.
Romney is an active Mormon; he has visited Mormon temples around the world to perform ordinances such as being baptized on behalf of his ancestors. He served for four years as the bishop of his church in Belmont and for nine years overseeing all Mormon congregations in metropolitan Boston. His campaign was followed by Mormons in Massachusetts and in Utah, where he owns a house and worked as head of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.
Romney's aides say his faith has no public significance.
"It's absolutely irrelevant," said his spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom. "People here didn't even think about it. It wasn't even a topic of discussion."
But political scientists insist his election has significant import, both in terms of religion and politics.
"Romney's election suggests that in one century we've come a long way, so that now it's perfectly acceptable to be Mormon," said Paul A. Djupe, an assistant professor of political science at Denison University and chairman of the religion and politics section of the American Political Science Association. "It also says something about the tolerance of the electorate."