For 17 years, Sal Velluto was the obedient son of Catholic parents. He didn't smoke and hardly drank. He went to church on Sundays and was a member of a Catholic youth group. He was the kind of teenager many parents in the southern Italian port city of Taranto could only have dreamt of. But then the model boy suddenly rebelled.
No, he didn't join the Communist Party or a street gang. But he did distance himself from his parents and the Catholic Church by following in the footsteps of a friend and converting to Mormonism.
Since 1984, Velluto has been living in Salt Lake City. Here, in the western United States, this curious religion has built its world capital, its own Jerusalem. He is now 56 and married to a Mormon woman. They have four children and lead a happy life, which he partly attributes to his religion. "It shifts my life into the right perspective," he says. "It's like I'm standing on a hill and can calmly organize the turmoil below."
The Mormons view Velluto as a godsend, as proof positive that new souls can still be found in secular Europe rather than just in Africa or Latin America. This religion, with its 6 million adherents, is already a force to be reckoned with in the United States -- though a silent force since the Mormons make as little fuss as possible about their religion in public.
Out of coincidence more than anything else, it has emerged that actor Ryan Gosling ("Ides of March") grew up in a Mormon family, and that both Stephenie Meyer, the author of the "Twilight" saga, and singer Gladys Knight are Mormons. Other prominent Mormons include the family that owns the Marriott hotel chain, the founder of JetBlue Airways and Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the White House national security adviser under former President George H.W. Bush. And, of course, there's also Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who is intent on driving President Barack Obama out of the White House in November.
Family and Faith
Though he could say a lot about Mormonism as a religion and way of life, Romney is discreet about his faith. As his church requires, he spent two-and-a-half years as a missionary, in Bordeaux and Paris, which left him fairly fluent in French.
The Romney family has enjoyed ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for generations. Mitt's great grandfather lived in the small city of Galeana, Mexico, and had five wives. At the time, polygamy was an accepted Mormon custom. His father was born in Mexico and came to the United States when he was 5 years old. A number of Mitt Romney's cousins still live in Mexico.
Romney and his wife Ann have raised their five sons according to Mormon traditions. These include family evenings with readings from the Book of Mormon, the Mormons' bible. It is a typical Mormon family: large, well-versed in scripture and family-centered. Romney also served his church as a lay bishop. Indeed, there is every indication that his faith is fairly important to him.
Such details can be found in biographies of the candidate. But, Romney avoids talking about his family history and his polygamous ancestors. Only after considerable hesitation did he reveal that he had donated a total of $4.1 million (€3.1 million) to his church over the last two years.
The Religious Divide
Sal Velluto is a strong supporter of Romney. He has brought along his laptop to show us a selection of his works -- cartoons filled with powerful figures, all of which are variants of Superman, Batman, Spiderman and Thor. Velluto, a prolific illustrator, contributes his works to books and magazines. He also campaigns for Romney, whom he draws as a Superman-like figure with a body that deflects accusations like bullets. His drawings can be ordered online in return for a campaign contribution.
Like Velluto, wealthy businessmen and financial backers of the Republican Party view Romney as their best candidate. He has a chiseled look about him, he was a successful businessman, and he rescued the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics from corrupt officials. Then he was elected governor in, of all places, the traditionally liberal northeastern state of Massachusetts. He's rich, pious and flexible. Could anybody seriously object to such a candidate?
The answer is: Yes, they can. Among the main objectors are Baptists and Evangelical Christians, who make up a strong contingent in the states of the American South, as well as members of the Tea Party, the bastion of the most basic form of conservatism in the United States. Together, they form a majority within the Republican Party, and they are all suspicious of Romney because he's a Mormon. Traditionalists hold that Mormons like him are not Christians because they claim that God was a human being and that human beings can be gods. This, they say, proves that Mormons cannot find eternal salvation but are, in fact, condemned to eternal damnation.
Of course, this is theology and, as such, it doesn't really have much to do with politics. Furthermore, Mormons are hardly strangers to the White House. In the administration of conservative icon Ronald Reagan, Mormons served in the cabinet, as ambassadors and as advisers. They were everywhere, and it didn't seem to bother anyone.
Romney is too cautious to confidently address the issue of his faith. Nevertheless, his friends are telling him that the only way to make peace with the religious wing of the Republican Party is to start talking about Mormonism, about his family's history in Mexico, about the once-common practice of polygamy and about the Mormons' relationship with America.
If Romney were a member of a mainstream Protestant church, the outcome of the Republican primaries would have already been settled by now. Instead, they continue to drag on even though Rick Santorum, his only serious rival, suspended his bid for the nomination on April 10. Romney's other two rivals, the ultra-conservative Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, are staying in the race despite the fact that they don't have even the slightest chance of securing the nomination. Likewise, Christian conservatives will probably continue hoping till the very end that Sarah Palin, the Joan of Arc of white, conservative America, will mount her steed and vanquish the Mormon.
John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic president. Barack Obama is the first black president. So why should it be that Romney, a Mormon, is having a hard time securing the Republican nomination?
"We are familiar with the prejudices about us," says Richard Hinckley, "but we don't strike back." Hinckley, a fit 70-year-old, is sitting bolt upright on the sofa in his office. Having served as a missionary for his church in western Germany's Ruhr region, he speaks German. In front of him is a letter that the mayor of Essen wrote to him in 1962, a perfectly structured invitation to a meeting in his office. The mayor's polite words were a glimmer of hope in Hinckley's life as a missionary, which he says "otherwise consisted almost exclusively of rejection, rejection and rejection."
A Violent Birth
Mormonism is a young religion. It doesn't have 200 -- let alone 2,000 -- years of history behind it, and it's accustomed to encountering hostility. The Hinckley family is part of the religion's ancient nobility. Hinckley's great-grandfather joined Joseph Smith, the founder and prophet of the church, in 1839. The first large Mormon temple and settlement were established in the town of Nauvoo, Illinois. This was also the area in which the new religion suffered its worst catastrophe, when a mob murdered its founder in 1844.
Smith was a poor rural laborer who was barely able to read and write. He claimed that God, Jesus Christ and, later, the angel Moroni appeared to him, and that they had shown him the way to a book of golden plates on which the tenets of the new religion were written in an ancient Egyptian script. He claimed that God had instructed him to translate the text and had outfitted him with special spectacles to accomplish the task.
The Book of Mormon was published in 1830, and the new cult gained supporters with astonishing speed. It was a time of religious turmoil that also spawned other new movements, including those of the Adventists, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Pentecostals. Historians call the period America's "Second Great Awakening," a religious revolution that took place 50 years after the young country's political revolution.
Smith urged his supporters, including Hinckley's great-grandfather, to build a new Jerusalem in preparation for the second coming of Christ. The Mormons were hardworking settlers. They formed a community of work and prayer, helped each other out and considered themselves chosen. But, with their peculiar religion, they also incurred the wrath and envy of people of other faiths, such as the Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians. These expressed their rage by burning down Mormon temples and houses, tarring and feathering the haughty Mormons and then chasing them out of Missouri and then Illinois.
Structure and Goals
"Our forefathers had no Reformation, like that of Martin Luther, because they believed that all churches since the resurrection of Christ were corrupt. They wanted to re-establish Christianity in its original form. That was their Restoration," Richard Hinckley says with proud equanimity. And since it was allowed under ancient Jewish law, polygamy became one of the customs of the new, syncretistic religion. Hinckley's great-grandfather had two wives, while Joseph Smith had many more -- between 33 and 44, depending on the source.
Richard's father, Gordon, was the most successful member of the Hinckley family. He was the president of the Mormons, the church's equivalent of the pope, and the successor of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He was also said to possess special gifts. "God continues to communicate with our prophets," says his son Richard. "God hasn't changed that."
Gordon Hinckley was 84 when he became the church's prophet and leader. The Mormon leadership is a gerontocracy in the sense that the oldest member of the inner circle, the so-called Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has always been the church's leader. When Hinckley died, at 97, he was succeeded by Thomas Monson, who is now 84.
The Mormon Church is democratically structured. Any layperson can assume any office, and there is no caste of priests. Richard Hinckley is a bishop, with responsibility for several congregations, as well as a so-called "stake president," an office within the second tier of leadership. He will not rise to higher office within the church, which he says is something he accepts.
Hinckley is also at peace with his faith. "As long as values are so much in flux in the world, my church will stand like a rock, fixed and unmovable," he says by way of goodbye.
An All-American Religion
The church is indeed fixed and unmovable, a monument to its own self-focused nature, says Will Bagley, a historian who has discussed the legends of the Mormons in most of the two dozen books he has written about the colonization of the American West.
"I'm a retired Mormon," says Bagley, 62, with a hearty laugh. He grew up in a Mormon family that took a relatively casual approach to religion. "When I was 14," he says, "my mother bribed me with a fistful of dollars so that I would read the Book of Mormon. I had a weakness for Greek mythology, but I had a problem with magic and superstition. Then I read Mark Twain's remarks about the Mormons, in which he said that the Book of Mormon was 'chloroform in print.' Even then, I thought he was right."
Still, Bagley says that Joseph Smith was a religious genius because he "created the god of the Yankees," who permitted the faithful to become gods themselves. "What could be more American than the belief in eternal progress?" Bagley asks.
Bagley's books are successful because he demystifies the Mormons while simultaneously giving them due credit. He sees them as social utopianists and revolutionaries because Smith and his followers wanted to change the world rather than merely interpret it. "They were proud and self-righteous, and they became hated figures in the cities they settled in," he says. "They told the locals that they were the direct descendants of ancient Israel, and that God was giving them this land. This wasn't well-received. What's more, they weren't slaveholders, which also wasn't well-received in all places."
Still at War with Fellow Christians
Bagley calls the expulsions of the Mormons around the middle of the 19th century "the first American civil war." But, he notes, they didn't go without a fight, and there were "massacres on both sides." In fact, he adds, at a certain point, the Mormons began to see hostility as a badge of honor.
The Mormons kept moving westward until they arrived in a valley surrounded by mountains and with a salt lake. They dubbed the river flowing into the lake the Jordan River in reference to the biblical River Jordan. There, they built their temple and assembly hall in 1847. There were Native Americans there, but no other settlers. Salt Lake City, their Zion, has developed into a city that somehow seems less American than other major cities on account of its cleanliness and quietness.
This religious utopia has transformed itself into an institution. But Mormonism's strange theology has prevented it from finding a secure place for itself within mainstream Protestantism. Even today, Mormons are viewed with suspicion, especially by fellow Christians, despite the fact that they are just as conservative and patriotic as Evangelicals or Baptists. "The question is: When will pious America make peace with pious Mormons," Bagley says.