By RACHEL ZOLL
SALT LAKE CITY - As 20,000 Mormons streamed from the church conference center, a ragtag group of protesters stood across the street shouting that the Latter-day Saints were going to hell. Mormon families, who had gathered here for two days of speeches and spiritual guidance called General Conference, ignored the hecklers or laughed and kept walking.
This, after all, is a church accustomed to much worse.
Yet, even with a resilience built over nearly two centuries as outsiders, church members are anxious about what's ahead. Republican Mitt Romney is about to become the first Mormon nominee for U.S. president on a major party ticket. That will give them a chance like no other to explain their tradition to the public, but the church's many critics will have a bigger platform, too. And the vetting will take place amid the emotion of what may well be a nasty general election.
"People who have opposed Mormonism forever will use this as an opportunity," said Robert Millet, a religion scholar at Brigham Young University who co-founded a pioneering evangelical-Mormon dialogue. "I don't know if we're ready for this kind of deluge."
At the Salt Lake City headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, officials are preparing to defend the church.
It's an effort that began before Romney officially announced his first, ultimately unsuccessful, 2008 bid for the GOP nomination. Mormon officials met with journalists around the country about the church's nonpartisanship. Leaders were worried that any statements they made to clarify doctrine would give the impression of aiding Romney.
That concern continues this election season. LDS officials have emphasized repeatedly that the church doesn't communicate with the Romney campaign. In a lengthy statement on their main website, Mormon leaders say the church does not "endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms."
The Latter-day Saints have been running a multimillion-dollar series of ads, called "I'm a Mormon," since 2010, to dispel stereotypes by telling the stories of individual Mormons. To avoid any appearance that the ads were meant to help Romney, the church didn't buy ad time in Iowa and some other markets with early primaries, said Michael Purdy, an LDS national spokesman. At the General Conference last month, led by the highest authorities of the church, there was no mention of the election across the pulpit.
"We're just going to do what the church does, regardless of the election," Purdy said.
The neutrality message can be a hard sell since Mormons are known to be overwhelmingly Republican and more socially conservative than many other Americans. The impression was reinforced by Mormon contributions of money and volunteers for Proposition 8, the 2008 California measure to bar same-sex marriage. (LDS officials say they were advocating for a moral, not a partisan, issue.)
The church has long contended with conspiracy theories of Mormon plots to take over America - claims that have only increased with Romney's prominence. If the former governor wins the White House, however, several political scientists predict LDS officials would be more likely to pull back from any policy debates to avoid an appearance of undue influence, even when Mormons have a clear interest.
"There is a good chance that the main way a lot of leaders of the church will respond to the election of a Mormon to the presidency will be to stay as quiet and uninvolved in politics as possible and put as much daylight as possible between that president and the institutional church," said Russell Arben Fox, a political scientist at Friends University in Wichita, Kan., and a Mormon writer. "They're a global church and have responsibilities all around the world. For them to appear to be lining up behind a Mormon president and endorsing his policies would just be bad for the church."
Despite their fears, Mormons acknowledge that Romney's nomination will be a milestone like none before for the church.
Organized in 1830, Latter-day Saints were persecuted from their earliest days for their doctrine and support for polygamy, which Mormons renounced in 1890. A mob assassinated founder Joseph Smith in 1844, sending Mormons fleeing into the unsettled Mountain West. Theological differences with other faith groups - about scriptures, the nature of God and heaven - provided fodder for anti-Mormon bias over the years. Christian groups challenged the Mormon assertion that the church is part of traditional Christianity. One such group, the Utah Lighthouse Ministry, operates just a few miles from Temple Square, the Salt Lake City complex at the heart of the faith.
Steve Shaw, a political scientist at Northwest Nazarene University and co-author of "The Presidents and Their Faith," compares this election to the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy, who confronted religious bias to become the first Roman Catholic president. Kennedy's election marked a move for Catholics more firmly into the American mainstream, a potential shift for Mormons as well in 2012. When Romney became the presumptive nominee last month, the liberal-leaning Mormon blog, "By Common Consent," posted an article titled, "Excited about Romney, Despite Myself."
"If Mr. Romney is elected, when he is sworn into office in January 2013, the history of Mormonism in this country clearly would enter a new chapter," Shaw said.
Christian groups with a competing emphasis on evangelizing worry about a flood of Mormon converts if Romney prevails over President Barack Obama. With 14.4 million members, the church is among the fastest-growing in the world, supported by a full-time missionary force of about 55,000 young people.
Yet, with Romney in the Oval Office, the popularity of the church could fall as well as rise.
Internally, while the church has indeed been gaining new members, it has also been losing some others: A number of younger Mormons have become disillusioned about LDS doctrine and history. Outgoing LDS church historian, Elder Marlin K. Jensen, confirmed that trend in a talk last November at Utah State University. Leaders worry that religion issues raised by the general election could exacerbate the problem. The Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research, or FAIR, a volunteer Mormon anti-defamation group, said its "Ask an Apologist" web feature has been especially busy with queries from Mormons struggling with questions from their children.
"It's forced a lot of members of the church to examine their beliefs and how they talk with their kids," said FAIR's president, Scott Gordon.
In surveys of non-Mormons, only a small minority say they are familiar with the church. Romney, a lifelong church member and one-time top LDS leader in the Boston area, will be their introduction. However, Romney rarely speaks about his faith while campaigning and would probably be no more forthcoming as he tried to navigate Washington and survive for a second term. The most visible member of Mormonism might end up practicing his religion in private.
But first, the church has to get to November.
FAIR has started a new website called MormonVoices.org, to combat misinformation about the church that could result from attention to the faith sparked by Romney's candidacy. Kyle Jarrett, who lives in Washington, said leaders of his LDS ward, or local congregation, organized an information session for church members on potential issues about Mormonism in the general election.
"It's a new thing for us, to hear our religion being talked about in a roundtable on MSNBC," said Jarrett, 30, who works for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
Events over the past decade have helped prepare Mormons for the spotlight. They handled the exposure that came with the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Last year brought the monster hit "The Book of Mormon," a Broadway satire about missionaries in Uganda. The church didn't protest. Instead, leaders who are asked for comment often use the line, "You've seen the show. Now read the book."
Now, Mormons are bracing for the onslaught of attention as Romney tries to break what pundits call a "stained-glass ceiling" for the presidency.
"I honestly look forward to having the public see an LDS member live life in full public view," said Alison Moore Smith, a Mormon Republican from Lindon, Utah, and founder of the blog MormonMomma.com. "While many (Mormons) are worried about the heightened scrutiny, most seem to have a 'finally they will see what we're really like' attitude."