CHARLOTTE, NC — Several dozen Mormon Democrats packed the second floor meeting room of a Holiday Inn here Tuesday for an event that was part political rally and part support session: an address from the modern icon of Latter-day Saint liberalism: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Setting aside his typical combative tone, Reid sought to reassure and rally a political minority that has spent much of this year under heavy scrutiny — and sometimes intense judgement — by their conservative coreligionists, who wonder how any true Mormon could fail to support Mitt Romney. Reid said he could relate.
He told a story about his son Leif, who once had a Mormon classmate at a new school urge him to join the Young Republicans. According to Reid, when his son said he was a Democrat, "The boy responded 'I didn't know Mormons could be Democrats.' I wish that was a joke, but it's true. And for 30 years I've been trying to change that perception."
Still, Reid acknowledged that there remains pressure within the Mormon community for members to vote Republican and urged the delegates and other activists to not give in to pressure.
"Be proud of who you are, don't back down, don't be afraid of what your neighbors may think," Reid said.
This is the message that prompted liberal LDS activists to organize "Mormons for Obama," the grassroots group with a rapidly growing social media presence that hosted the event here Tuesday. In a year when the vast majority of American Mormons are celebrating Romney's ascent to the Republican nomination, organizers say many of the Democrats in their faith have been left feeling alienated.
"I haven't had any rocks thrown throw my window, and nobody's scribbled out my bumper sticker, but there are a lot of angry glares, and a lot of feelings of exclusion," said Hannah Wheelwright, president of BYU Democrats and head of the Obama campaign's Mormon outreach in Utah.
"We're such a minority in our own [church] we know what it's like to feel alone. We all know what it feels like to squirm on Sunday school when the crazy tea party guy gets up there," said Crystal Young-Otterstrom, a young Democratic mother from Utah who introduced Reid at the event.
Mormons for Obama was formed, in part, as a sort of virtual therapy group for people to vent their (always-polite) frustrations with their conservative coreligionists, said national director Rob Tabler. And indeed, the organization's Facebook groups — one of which recently surpassed 1,000 members — was home to a lot of venting in the early days.
Jordan Morales, 24, a Mormon Boise State student, said he found the Mormons for Obama page after quickly learning that his left-leaning Facebook posts were causing more social friction among his LDS friends than he wanted.
"It always turned really messy," Morales said. "You've got friends arguing with your mom; it's just bad. So I came across this group, and it was an amazing place to be able to, I guess, fellowship with likeminded members... It's no longer only a vent session, but it strengthens my resolve to be both a Mormon and an Obama supporter."
Now, Mormon Democrats are left trying to convince the rest of their church that Mormon teachings are more closely aligned with Democratic principles of social welfare and care for the needy, than conservatism's individualist ideal.
"I've always kind of seen that conservatism has never been a huge friend of those in need," said Morales. "Immigration and taking care of the poor and needy, those are my most important issues. Republicans don't have the answers on those."
Their case is complicated, however, by the fact that the Mormon Church — while politically neutral on most issues — has taken strident stances against same-sex marriage, and elective abortion (except in cases of rape, incest, and where the mother's health is at risk). Wheelwright said even among Mormon Democrats, there is a deep divide in how to approach these delicate culture war issues — with some preferring to ignore them altogether, and others opting to openly disagree with the church hierarchy.
Wheelwright said she is regularly questioned at BYU about how she can support same-sex marriage and still consider herself "worthy" to enter Mormon temples.
"I respond that it used to be church doctrine that black men couldn't receive the priesthood," she said, referring to the the church's exclusion of black men from its priesthood ranks until 1978. "But we don't look back at Mormons who disagreed with that policy and say, 'Oh my gosh, what faithless people!' I'm not suggesting our doctrine will change. I'm just saying that when we look back at this time, we will wish we considered the struggle our LGBT brothers and sisters go through."
And while she doesn't expect the church to suddenly drop its opposition to same-sex marriage, Wheelwright does wish it would be more aggressive in emphasizing its political neutrality. It's clearly made some effort: Within minutes of Romney officially receiving the Republican nomination last week, the church posted a video to its Facebook page headlined "Mormons are politically diverse.
But she said such efforts can be too easily dismissed as a bid to maintain the tax-exempt status that comes with being a nonpartisan religious group. Wheelwright would like to see high-ranking church authorities make the case that American liberalism can fit comfortably with its teachings.
Otherwise, she fears, public spectacles like the final night of the Republican convention — which featured a Mormon invocation, and Mormon testimonials of Romney's church leadership — will come to define her faith as a distinctly Republican religion.
"I guess it's good for people to see that we're not cult-like and we don't have crazy prayers," said Wheelwright of last Thursday night's RNC program. "But, really, I wish Mitt Romney would stop talking about his religion. I wish it would go away."
In the mean time, Mormon Democrats will have to tough it out through an election — and perhaps a presidency — when the most famous Latter-day Saint in the world is a Republican. And since they can't turn to liquor (their faith forbids it), they're relying on hymns and sentimental testimonials.
The emotional meeting Tuesday was instructive. Young-Otterstrom broke down in tears while introducing Reid before leading the room in a rendition of the Mormon hymn, "Have I Done Any Good in the World Today?"
At one point, she fervently insisted, "We're not a one-party church. We're a multi-party church." And when she spoke of working to turn her Mormon friends into Democrats, she did so in decidedly religious terms.
As she put it, "It's a missionary effort."