Helen Claire Sievers is a Mormon. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts, goes to church every Sunday and wears the long, white underwear that her faith requires. She thinks that Mormonism still has some catching up to do when it comes to women's rights, but otherwise it is a source of good moral strength. "People are called on to behave themselves, to be nice to their fellow men, to look after their children, and not to lie," she said. She admitted that a few of the things written in the Book of Mormon are a little odd, but isn't that also true of the Bible? After all, it wasn't the Mormons who invented the idea of a virgin birth.
As many as six million Mormons currently live in the US, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA). Most live in Utah, Idaho and Arizona, but there are also many in Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming. One of them is Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who speaks little about his faith publicly. That is partly because Mormons are traditionally more reserved about demonstrating their religion, but it is also because they face many prejudices.
Faith or cult?
A year ago, when the Republican primary race for the presidential nomination had just begun, a prominent Baptist preacher referred to Mormonism as a "cult." Pastor Robert Jeffress declared, "Those of us that are evangelicals have every right to prefer and select a competent Christian over a competent non-Christian."
Sievers has had a single, rather unpleasant encounter with evangelical Christianity, when they did not allow her sons to play the organ and piano at a Christian service. "They are bigoted and uninformed and they think they're right about everything," she said of them. Sievers, a mother of five, added that in her opinion, the Republicans have very cleverly courted this group by propagating their views on same-sex marriage and abortion. "They pull this swarm of voters behind them, and then use it to force through the issues that really matter to them, as in financial policy."
Religion and voting habits
Religious affiliation is an important factor in US voting habits, explains John Green, political science professor at Akron University, Ohio. Certain religious groups are closely bound to one of the two parties. White evangelical Christians for instance, tend to vote Republican. "That means it's a challenge for Governor Romney and his team to go to the evangelicals and get the same support as previous Republican presidential candidates enjoyed," said Green.
On the other hand, Romney can be sure of the support of most Mormons. "Mormons are a strong Republican religious group in the US, and the vast majority of them will vote for Romney," said Green.
Catholics, on the other hand, are more divided. The stricter Catholics vote Republican, while those that don't attend Mass as often vote Democrat, as do Black Protestants and non-religious people.
Dividing church and state
But all religious Americans are united by a single desire. "Americans want their president to represent moral values, and to acknowledge the importance of religion," said Dennis Goldford, politics professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. His book "The Constitution of Religious Freedom: God, Politics, and the First Amendment" was published in the spring. "Religion is a mark of moral values in America," he said.
Many US citizens go to church regularly - many more than in Europe. But church and state is separated, there is no official US religion, and the state does not collect church tax either. For that reason, churches have to actively advertise to win members, who then become much more engaged about their religion. "An atheist would probably find it difficult to be elected [president]," said Green.
Rather Mormon than Obama
Muslims are viewed even more suspiciously than Mormons, especially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This skepticism expresses itself in the fact that many Americans still believe that Obama is, in fact, a Muslim. Many see this as an attempt to brand the president an outsider. Asked to choose between the Christian Obama and the Mormon Romney, many evangelical Christians will pick Romney, Goldford believes. "Even people who have their reservations because of his Mormon faith will vote for Romney, because their aversion to President Obama is strong enough to outweigh their doubts," he said.
In mid-October, just a few weeks before the election, Billy Graham, one of the most famous and influential evangelical pastors ever, came out in support of Romney - even though he chose the words of his endorsement carefully. Graham said that America was standing at a crossroads. "I hope millions of Americans will join me in praying for our nation and to vote for candidates who will support the biblical definition of marriage, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms," he said in a statement on his website.
The steadfastness of Romney's faith is likely to become an advantage for him, even if he is Mormon. Green notes a sea change in the relationship between politics and religion. In previous eras, for instance in the time of John F. Kennedy, religious affiliation was all - but nowadays religiosity itself is becoming more and more important in the US. While in 1960 two-thirds of all Americans were Protestant, today, for the first time, they number less than half - just 48 percent.
In the meantime, the group of Americans who define their religious affiliation as "none" - agnostics, atheists, or those who consider themselves religious but do not subscribe to any single faith - has grown. That group now makes up some 20 percent of the population.