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.
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.”