WASHINGTON – The campaigns by Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. for the Republican presidential nomination, along with the popular and profane Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” are putting Mormons in the public eye. But common caricatures — not to mention some of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ public relations efforts — create confusion about this 14 million-strong religion.
So let’s unpack some misunderstandings about how this faith can engage the world, whether on a mission or in the White House.
1. Mormons practice polygamy.
Mainstream Mormons do not practice polygamy today, but it remains part of our history and theology. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, married at least 33 women (often without the consent of his first wife, Emma) and preached that polygamy was divinely sanctioned. In 1890, more than four decades after Smith’s death, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the mainstream Mormon Church — yielded to political pressure and phased out the practice. Today, members who marry more than one spouse are excommunicated, but ultra-orthodox splinter groups continue the practice.
Polygamy remains a source of tension for mainstream Mormons. Mormon public figures routinely play down our polygamous history, saying that only a tiny percentage of 19th-century Mormon families were polygamous. (Historians say it was 20 to 30 percent.) But the LDS Church, which teaches that marriages — or “sealings” — performed in its temples are eternal, has never disavowed elements of Mormon theology suggesting that polygamy will be practiced in heaven.
Church policy permits widowed and some divorced men to be sealed for all eternity to more than one wife, while Mormon women may not be sealed to more than one husband. Consequently, some mainstream LDS Church members anticipate polygamy as part of eternity, while others reject it.
2. Mormons aren’t Christians.
A few weeks ago, an anchor on Fox News stated that Mitt Romney is “obviously not … a Christian.” Yet that same Sunday morning, millions of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the world prayed in the name of Jesus Christ, received a bread-and-water sacrament memorializing the body and blood of Christ, and discussed Christ’s teachings in Sunday school.
We Mormons view ourselves as Christians. Many Christian pastors and scholars, however, point to theological technicalities that disqualify us from the mainline tradition. And some evangelicals do not see us as Christians for reasons rooted in antiquated anti-Mormon prejudice. Mormons distance ourselves from other Christians by claiming that our faith offers a “restoration” of doctrines lost to mainstream Christendom.
Growing up in California, I frequently heard that I belonged to a cult; local churches screened anti-Mormon films; and classmates taped anti-Mormon notes in my locker. Some people will never see Mormons as Christians. But ask my Jewish husband if he thinks his Christmas-celebrating, New Testament-reading Mormon wife is Christian, and his answer will be absolutely yes.
3. Most Mormons are white, English-speaking conservatives.
From its American beginnings, Mormonism has grown into a global religion, with 14.1 million members worldwide. Fewer than half live in the United States. More LDS Church members live in South America (about 2.1 million) than Utah (1.9 million). There are significant Mormon populations in the Philippines, Tonga, Samoa and other Pacific islands, and the church is growing in Africa. In the United States, a majority of converts in recent years have been Latinos. Worldwide, 4.5 million LDS Church members speak Spanish.
American Mormonism has earned a reputation as conservative, partly because of Mormon figures such as Glenn Beck and Utah’s status as a reliably red state. But this is a 20th-century custom, not a doctrinal mandate. While recent polls show that only 39 percent of American Mormons identify as “moderate” or “liberal,” shifting demographics suggest that number may grow. For example, the influx of Latino Mormons has led the church to adopt more progressive stances on immigration reform.
4. Mormon women are second-class citizens.
Mormon women are sometimes perceived as voiceless, mindless members of our faith; LDS Church spokespeople portray us as uniformly happy with our situation. Neither perspective is accurate.
It is true that mainstream Mormonism does not accord women equal status with men. The worldwide LDS Church chain of command — including all positions of clerical, institutional and fiscal authority — is entirely male. Women cannot hold the lay priesthood shared in by men age 12 and older. The church’s Proclamation on the Family declares that men “preside” over the household. Unequal gender language is also a part of Mormon temple worship and marriage ceremonies, which instruct women to answer to their husbands, while men answer to God.
But Mormonism also has more progressive elements. Our concept of God is not exclusively male: We believe in a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. Our theology teaches that all individuals can receive inspiration directly from God. Our history gives us many examples of strong, independent-minded women, such as 19th-century suffragist Emmeline Wells and writer Eliza R. Snow. And thousands of progressive LDS women and men today call ourselves “Mormon feminists” — rejecting parts of Mormonism that promote inequality while holding to affirming elements of our tradition.
5. A Mormon president would blur the line between church and state.
The Romney and Huntsman campaigns have raised questions about the potential relationship between the LDS Church and a Mormon president — much as John F. Kennedy’s campaign did decades ago regarding the Catholic Church.
Many Mormons believe that the election of an LDS president would improve perceptions of our faith. But some non-Mormons remain suspicious of the church’s political ambitions, especially after the heavy investment of Mormon money and volunteers in campaigns to defeat same-sex marriage, including California’s Proposition 8 in 2008.
For 2012, the church has asserted its neutrality and instructed employees and officers not to donate to, endorse or campaign for any candidate.
It should be remembered that Mormons have held local, state and federal offices in America for more than a century. Fifteen Mormons now serve in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and few seemed to worry that the LDS Church was influencing his debt-ceiling proposals.
Joanna Brooks writes on Mormonism for the online magazine Religion Dispatches and on Twitter (@askmormongirl).
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