Ryan Bell is worried about the “weird” factor.
A young Utah lawyer, Bell is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and a supporter of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
And he intends to spend much of his free time answering questions about the church, dispelling myths and batting back attacks on his faith and Romney, a Mormon.
Last week, Bell launched a blog at www.romneyexperience.com to offer, as he wrote in his first post, “focused information meant to counter the ever more frequent misinformation being published in the political sphere about the LDS church and its beliefs.”
Specifically, Bell wants to do for his church what Romney’s campaign hopes to do for him: prove that Mormons aren’t that different than the rest of us.
“People just think Mormons are weird,” Bell explained in a telephone interview.
The son of a Utah state senator, Bell, 31, is a lawyer in Salt Lake City who caught the political bug while attending law school at Georgetown University.
And his experience is not unlike other Mormons'. He recalls with a laugh lawyers at the Washington firm where he worked one summer asking him about his horse & buggy. “They confused us with Amish,” Bell said.
Church steers clear of Romney's candidacy
Bell, who has no formal training in Mormon history, could play a very important role for Romney. As the former governor rises in the polls and draws heightened media attention, his religion is sure to be even more deeply scrutinized.
The Salt Lake City-based church, while eager to field general inquires about it, has made clear that it intends to steer clear of Romney’s candidacy; the church is avowedly neutral when it comes to partisan politics.
At the same time, Romney and his campaign steer any discussion of Mormon doctrine and tradition on to a higher plane of religious tolerance and the shared ecumenical traditions that bond all people of faith.
So, with the democratizing power of the Internet, Bell is offering to answer the questions that the church and Romney aren’t.
“I understand there is legitimate curiosity out there [about Mormonism],” Bell said, acknowledging that some church practices, past and present, may seem odd to outsiders.
“But we have specific, legitimate answers on each of the questions out there and can put them in a historical context,” he said.
A normal, mainstream faith
His goals, he said are straightforward: No. 1, to get information out there – and No. 2, show that this is a " normal, mainstream faith.”
And a couple of quick questions to Bell suggest he’s ready for the task.
Doesn’t Romney’s Mormon-mandated clean living reinforce the notion that he’s a bit more squeaky-clean than most Americans can relate to?
“That is a pretty fair stereotype,” Bell acknowledged, admitting that he’s also “led a pretty similar life.” But, he added, it’s unfair “to make what we usually see as strengths and turn them into generalized weaknesses.”
What exactly are some of those unique church practices? Won’t Americans find it odd that Romney’s in-laws couldn’t attend their own daughter’s wedding because non-Mormons aren’t allowed in temples?
“There are things that are held very sacred to all religions,” Bell explained. “A temple is a sacred space and one that we’re willing to share with others who are willing to share the same covenant.”
In addition to his day job as a lawyer, Bell spent a few years heavily involved in the Mormon blogosphere and delved deeply into church history. He has no official connectio, though, with the church’s hierarchy and said that he didn’t inform Mormon officials about his Web plans.
Asked about the site, LDS spokesman Michael Otterson pointed to their political neutrality.
“On the face of it, I think we just have to assume that such sites will proliferate since anyone can now create their own blog,” he said. “The church won't have anything to say about these political blogs.”
But, he cautioned that journalists who go to such blogs “need to know that by doing so, they are not consulting an official source.”
“If commentators want to be sure they are reflecting the church and its beliefs, practices and policies,’’ Otterson said, “they ought to include a call to church public affairs, whose staff are close enough to church leaders to be able to respond with authoritative answers.”
Bell, who’s never met Romney, also said he had never informed the Romney campaign of his plans. And a spokesman for the former governor said he’d never seen the site until a reporter brought it to his attention.
“As the governor gathers more and more interest in his candidacy, there is renewed interest in his faith,” said Romney press secretary Kevin Madden. “I expect that there are a lot of folks out there who can provide information that can explain about their church in a positive light.”
'Mormons are kind of goofy'
But, much like the church spokesman, Madden offered a decidedly wait-and-see approach.
Asked if he were comfortable with a site that will inevitably weigh in on delicate matters relating to Romney’s faith, Madden readily acknowledged that Romney’s faith has already “become part of the public debate.”
“Whether or not I’m comfortable,’’ Madden said, “that’s the reality.”
But, Madden added, Romney “is not a spokesman for his church.”
Neither is Bell. But he believes that by openly going where the church won’t and Romney, at least for now, won’t either, can help dispel any notion that “Mormons are kind of goofy.”
“If you know a Mormon,’’ Bell said, “that is usually enough to disabuse you of a notion of weirdness.”