Augusta Mormons welcome chance to address questions, perceptions

'I'm a Mormon'

It has been dubbed Amer­ica’s “Mormon moment.”

The political spotlight directed at Republican pres­i­dential candidate Mitt Rom­ney, a Mormon, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints is probably a good thing, according to local members of the faith who say they welcome the chance to answer questions and address misconceptions about Mormons.

The church maintains a strict policy of political neutrality. That’s because the church’s mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians, said Melissa Posey Loose, the director of public affairs for the Augusta Georgia Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Members are encouraged to vote and are allowed to participate in campaigns or stump for candidates. Some do, but not necessarily for the candidate people assume.

Derrick Johnston is a surgeon-in-training at the Medical College of Georgia and a member of the church. He lives in North Augusta with his wife, Rebecca, and two children. If he can get away from work Saturday, he plans to vote for Ron Paul in South Carolina’s GOP primary.

“I meet a lot of people at the hospital who ask about the church because of the exposure it’s been given. It’s interesting. They ask, ‘Are you going to vote for your Mormon buddy?’ ” said Johnston, who is 30 and a Utah native. “It surprises them that I’m not voting for Romney. I have nothing against the guy. I just don’t agree with his politics.”

‘I’m a Mormon’

Two months ago, Johnston created an online profile at Mormon.org as part of a national media campaign called “I’m a Mormon,” which launched in October. The campaign uses television ads, billboards and member profiles to give the public a glimpse into the lives of Latter-day Saints around the world.

Johnston is one of several church members in the Augusta area to participate in the campaign.

“I think it breaks a lot of stereotypes,” Loose said. “I hope that it shows that we, in so many ways, are just like everyone else.”

Many Mormons feel misunderstood and discriminated against, according to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Nearly half of Mormons say they face discrimination in the U.S., according to a Jan­uary survey of more than 1,000 Mormons. Six in 10 said Americans as a whole are uninformed on Mormonism.

Christian faith?

While Mormons nearly unanimously describe Mor­monism as Christian, a third of Americans disagree. A No­vember study, also from the Pew Forum, found that 32 percent of the American public says the Mormon faith is not Christian. An additional 17 percent said they weren’t sure.

The same study asked an open-ended question about what one word best describes the Mormon faith. The most common response was “cult.”

One of the reasons Shan­non Bonham joined the “I’m a Mormon” campaign was to battle misconceptions. The Evans woman converted to Mormonism 26 years ago.

“I really love to talk to people about the church,” she said. “It has made a huge difference in my life.”

Bonham, 46, is an education major at Augusta State University who is student-teaching U.S. history at Evans High School as she completes her degree. She sings for the rock band the Vellotones and plays guitar with Group Ther­apy.

When Georgia’s Republican primary rolls around March 6, Bonham says she’ll likely vote for Romney.

“When people get to know Romney and people in the church, they go, ‘Oh, I share those values,’ ” she said. “But some people aren’t going to take the time to find out what he really believes, or what any of us really believes. His faith is only a liability if people don’t understand it.”

Bonham says the perception that bothers her the most is that women are suppressed in the church.

“Some people assume wo­men do not have a choice. I can tell you, as an outspoken woman, it’s not true,” she said.

Surge of interest

With repeated media exposure, some think acceptance of Mormonism is on the rise. Nearly two-thirds of Mormons surveyed by the Pew Forum said Americans are becoming more likely to see Mormonism as part of mainstream society. Mormons make up about 2 percent of the American population, with 6 million members across the country.

There are approximately 40,000 Mormons in South Car­olina, but that’s only a fraction compared to the numbers of other groups, such as Southern Baptists, which claim nearly 20 times more adherents.

J. Vaun McArthur, the president of the Augusta Georgia Stake of the church, has spent his week fielding media calls and traveling to television stations in South Carolina. He was appointed to speak on be­half of the church in South Car­o­lina, as the Augusta Stake spans portions of the state, including Aiken.

He says the church experienced a similar surge of interest during the 2002 winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and in 2008, when Romney made his first presidential run.

With each interview, Mc­Arthur takes the opportunity to stress the church’s stance of political neutrality.

“While we’re grateful we’re in the spotlight, we’re hoping they’re looking at what we offer as a church, instead of what we provide in terms of political candidates,” he said. “We feel very strongly that our message is Jesus Christ and nothing else.”

THE BELIEFS

Members of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hold some beliefs distinct from Christianity as practiced by Protestant, Orthodox or Roman Catholic believers, but almost all Mormons consider themselves Christians.

• Mormons believe in Jesus Christ as savior. Before entering the world, he was known as Jehovah, the firstborn spirit child of God and the elder brother to all people. He became Jesus after being born in a physical body to Mary.

• Mormons do not believe in the Trinity. God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are three distinct personages with their own roles in eternity. Both God and Jesus have bodies of flesh and bones.

• Mormons believe some early saints including Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were called by God to practice plural marriage. The church ended the practice of polygamy in 1890.

• Baptisms for the dead are performed by church members in temples across the globe. Those individuals can then choose to accept or decline the baptism in eternity.

• Church members tithe 10 percent of their income. The tithes are sent to Salt Lake City, with a portion returned to local congregations.

• Young adults participate in full-time missionary service, usually for a period of two years, wherever the church sends them.

• Mormons do not have paid clergy. The spiritual leader for each congregation, called a ward, is a bishop, which is a volunteer position undertaken by a member of the congregation.

• Mormons avoid tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea, and illegal drugs, in accordance with the Word of Wisdom, laws for health Joseph Smith received from God in 1833.

THE HISTORY

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in Fayette, N.Y., on April 6, 1830, under the leadership of Joseph Smith.

When Smith was just 14, he went into a grove of trees near his home in Palmyra, N.Y., and prayed about which church he should join. Mormons believe that God, the father, and his son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Smith. He was told that the church originally organized by Jesus Christ was no longer on the Earth.

Smith was called to restore the church and, over the next 10 years, was visited by angels and messengers, and received ancient scriptures written on plates of gold, which he translated into English in the Book of Mormon.

Today, the church has about 14 million members worldwide and is headquartered in Salt Lake City.

Source: Mormon.org

LEARN MORE ONLINE

Learn more about the “I’m a Mormon” campaign and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at www.mormon.org.

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