When Rudolf Hegewald left East Germany to join fellow Mormons in the US state of Utah more than five decades ago, he could only dream that a member of his faith would one day run for president.
But with Mitt Romney all but certain to receive the Republican nomination next week, Hegewald might even see one of his brethren in the White House.
Serving as a volunteer at a church welfare center in Salt Lake City, the 82-year-old retiree follows Romney’s campaign closely.
“The missionary work would be easier if you could say: ‘The President of the United States is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’,” Hegewald said, praising the “high moral principles” he says guide Mormons.
Mormons are rarely as outspoken about their views on Romney as Hegewald. Church officials insist that their mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians or promote their own community.
“We take that neutrality very seriously,” said Michael Otterson, managing director of public affairs for the LDS Church. “We are not interested in discussing political campaigns or politics.”
Facing persistent skepticism about his faith among mainstream Christian Evangelicals, some of whom have called Mormonism a “cult”, Romney has tried to avoid any references to religion beyond a vague image of a churchgoing man.
When the New York Times and the Washington Post recently published stories on Romney’s long-standing involvement as a lay church leader and his commitment to Mormon teachings, his campaign declined to comment.
But last Sunday, Romney suddenly opened up to the media, inviting journalists to accompany him to church services for the first time since he started running for president.
According to reports, Romney’s advisers believe it is time for him to embrace his religious background, calculating that voters’ appreciation for his charitable giving and active church role will outweigh doubts about Mormonism.
Andrew Watson and his wife Kelsey live in a suburb of Salt Lake City, the heartland of the faith, raising their four kids on a quiet street with spacious family homes and neatly manicured lawns.
“Mormons don’t need a trophy,” said 34-year-old Watson, stressing that Romney’s faith does not determine his choice for President.
“We vote for who is more qualified.”
But Watson hoped the attention drawn to Mormonism by Romney’s run for the White House could “help clarify some misconceptions” about his faith.
There are six million Mormons in the United States, making up about two percent of the population.
The church is known for its smartly-dressed missionaries — who fan out around the world in pairs looking for converts — as well as its former practice of polygamy and strict rules against alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.
According to a Bloomberg News poll from March, more than one in three Americans hold an unfavorable view of the Mormon church.
Some of the stigma stems from the faith’s seemingly secret traditions — non-Mormons are barred from entering temples, for example.
A recent survey of Mormon voters in Utah by the Brigham Young University, a Mormon centre of learning, showed that 79 percent of respondents believed Romney’s candidacy is a good thing for their church.
In a Pew Research Center poll among US Mormons published earlier this year, 56 percent believe Americans are ready to elect a Mormon president, compared with 32 percent who do not believe the time is right.
Romney is not the first Mormon to seek the White House. The faith’s founder Joseph Smith ran in 1844, in part to press for greater civil liberties for members of his nascent church.
And Romney’s father George waged an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 1968.
Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor, was another Mormon candidate this year, but his campaign failed to gain traction and he dropped out in January.
So Mitt Romney is the first member of the LDS church to secure the nomination of a major political party, squaring off against President Barack Obama on November 6.
“I think even Mormons that will not vote for Mitt Romney, if he were elected would see that as an important symbolic moment in terms of the church’s acceptance among the wider public”, Chris Karpowitz, a BYU political science professor, told AFP. “There is a sense of shared identity.”
But for most voters, including Mormons, religion will likely play only a minor role, Karpowitz said. “Overall, the economy will be the most important issue for the election.”
At BYU, the university 40 minutes south of Salt Lake City where Romney earned a bachelor’s degree in 1971 before continuing his studies at Harvard, students share the idea that religion is not the issue on the ballot.
“I think it’s more important to get a President who can turn the economy around,” 24-year-old business major Sean Hollingshead said.
“Religion doesn’t really matter. But if we can get people more informed about our faith, that’s a positive side note.”