PALMYRA, N.Y. — As thousands of Mormons descend on this tiny New York hamlet for this week’s annual Hill Cumorah spectacle — the flagship pageant of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — Mitt Romney, the nation’s first major-party Mormon presidential candidate, doesn’t seem to be far from anyone’s mind.
Unsurprisingly, the sentiment about Romney is overwhelmingly positive, bordering on reverence. While the accepted wisdom about Romney is that he is unable to truly inspire voters, that is patently untrue of the pageant-goers at Hill Cumorah.
“I love him,” Marolan Conti, a pageant attendee from Provo, Utah, told Business Insider. “Everyone loves Mitt.”
The main reason for her admiration, she said, is what she sees as his obvious devotion to his family, a core value of the LDS Church, and one often mentioned in my discussions about Romney with LDS members.
“He has a good family — family and the Constitution, those are the two most important things for us, for LDS members,” Conti said. “You can tell a lot about people by the way they raise their children, and from what I can tell his sons are good, down-to-earth people.”
People who know the Romney family have confirmed that perception, Conti said, adding that she has a good friend whose good friend’s daughter is married to Tagg Romney, the eldest of Romney’s sons, and says he is “just a great husband, a great father — really down-to-earth.”
Conti’s second-hand acquaintance with the Romneys is actually fairly common among members of the LDS Church, particularly those who live in Utah or whose families, like the Romneys, have belonged to the church for generations.
“Everyone knows someone who knows someone” who knows the Romneys or their children, Conti said, explaining that he was well-known among his fellow students when he attended Brigham Young University, where he taught his fellow students in “gospel principles,” or LDS Church teachings.
Robert L. Bentman, a 90-year-old pageant attendee from Salt Lake City, claims a more direct relationship with the Romneys. Mitt Romney’s grandfather was the bishop of his ward (the rough equivalent of a Catholic parish), Bentman said, adding that he has “fond memories of him from my youth.”
Bentman said that he also had a lot of interaction with Mitt Romney’s father, George Romney, when both men held leadership positions within the church, and that he got to know Mitt Romney when he took over running the Salt Lake City Olympics (Bentman ran the senior citizen volunteer program for those Olympics).
“I’ve always found him to be an outstanding man,” Bentman said, of Mitt Romney. “He took over the Olympics during a time of great debt, and he brought us out of it and made it profitable…That was very important moment for the Church because it was such a good publicity opportunity for us, not just nationally but also internationally, to show off our city and our society.”
Even among pageant-attendees who do not claim an acquaintance to Romney, there appeared to be a general sense of familiarity with the candidate.
“Do I know Mitt personally? No,” said one pageant attendee, who holds a position with the church in Salt Lake City. “But I know who he is — I know that he is a good conservative, I know that he’s a good dad — I know that he’s the guy who can get this country back on track.”
This man, who declined to be named because of his position within the church, did express some reservations about Romney’s personal wealth and about his record at Bain Capital. But he said he gives the candidate the benefit of the doubt.
“I think Mitt believes that there is enough to go around for everyone,” he said.
But not everyone at the pageant was convinced.
“I understand the appeal of the Democrats’ side — the idea of helping others who are less fortunate, that is more in line with what the church teaches,” said David LaFrance, a pageant-goer who works in corporate finance. He added that he agrees with most of Romney’s policies.
But LaFrance, like many of the pageant-goers Business Insider spoke to, said he welcomes the increased curiosity about the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and sees it as an opportunity to dispel some of the misconceptions about Mormons.
“There are always going to be skeptics and critics, but the exposure for the church is a net positive overall,” LaFrance said. “It gets people asking questions, people are starting to get to know our members.”
LaFrance’s wife Lori added that she hopes people will start to realize that the church is not as secretive and rigid as it has been portrayed.
“It’s just people who are trying to live in the best way they can, following Christ,” she said.
John Sykes, a 22-year-old auto mechanic from New York, agreed.
“Mitt puts the spotlight on Mormons,” Sykes said. “Usually people think we’re like Amish people, or that we practice polygamy, which Mormons haven’t done in like a hundred years. This could show the rest of the country that we’re normal, we just don’t swear or drink.”
But some, like Corry and Wendy Orme, a married couple who performed in the pageant, expressed concern that Romney may not be the right candidate to carry the church into the spotlight.
“I don’t know a lot about Mitt Romney,” Corry said. “We haven’t really made up our minds yet — just because someone shares my faith doesn’t mean I am going to vote for them.”
“Like Barack Obama, Mitt could be a milestone for the church,” he added. “I just hope it’s the right milestone.”