From interfaith efforts in support of Islam to "I am Mormon" billboards, it's become common for religious organizations to buy public ads to promote their faiths and causes. But a national atheist organization is taking it a step further, using Monday's presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., to launch a week-long attack on the faith of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
The mobile billboard ad, which will be propped up on a truck that will circle the university during the debate, is sponsored by American Atheists, the nation's oldest atheist organization. "Shame on Mormonism," the ad says. "No blacks allowed (Until 1978). No gays allowed."
The sign references the church's former ban on black members in the lay priesthood, its policy that gay members should remain celibate and its high-profile promotion and funding of anti-same sex marriage efforts.
Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists, said he plans for the $8,000 ad effort to make stops at Romney-related events over the next week as the campaign reaches its final stretch before the Nov. 6 election.
"We are not charging that Mr. Romney is a racist, but he did recruit for a racist organization, seemingly without reservations ... We need to know Mr. Romney's stance on diversity (ethnic and religious) before we vote," Silverman said in an email. He added that "allowing gay people to join (so they can tithe) while not allowing them to live as they see fit is not acceptance, but rather the very definition of intolerance."
In an unusual move from an atheist perspective, Silverman borrowed from evangelical Christian attacks on Mormonism, calling it a "polytheistic, non-Abrahamic religion." Silverman said his organization is financing the ad because he believes Romney's role in the church has not been deeply examined. The effort is the latest flap over Romney's faith, which has been targeted since he launched his primary campaign. Just this month, after he met and nearly endorsed Romney, the website of Rev. Billy Graham's nonprofit scrubbed a reference to Mormonism as a "cult."
The organization previously tried to place anti-Mormon and more broadly anti-Christian ads in Tampa for the Republican National Convention, but was denied space by billboard operators. Ads that said "Christianity: Sadistic God, Useless Savior" and "Mormonism: Magic Underwear, Baptizes Dead People, Big Money, Big Bigotry" went up in Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention, but were pulled after complaints.
Officials in the Latter-day Saints church, whose members overwhelmingly tend to vote Republican, have repeatedly emphasized during the campaign that the church does not endorse candidates. While the church's beliefs differ greatly from those held by most Christians, the Latter-day Saints church has emphasized that Jesus Christ is central to the faith and the vast majority of its members see themselves as Christians.
"People are surely free to disagree with us on the facts. This group seems not to know that there have been black members of the Church since our earliest history, and there are many faithful gay members of the church today," said Dale Jones, a church spokesman. "We would be happy to introduce the [American Atheists president] to any of our millions of members of different [ethnic backgrounds] who would be happy to educate him on our racial diversity."
From 1977 to 1994, Romney served in several positions in the lay leadership of the church while living in Massachusetts, the highest being a stake president, akin to the leader of a Catholic diocese. Romney has spoken less extensively about his faith during this presidential run than during his failed primary bid four years ago, but has never said his church would have any control over his performance as a president.
"If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest," Romney said when similar accusations were made about his religion during his field primary bid four years ago. On black priests, Romney said in 2008 that he was "anxious to see a change in my church" and cried with joy when the church lifted its ban. More recently, when a man at an April campaign event asked if Romney thought it was "a sin for a white man to marry and procreate with a black," Romney replied with an emphatic "no."