By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007
PALMYRA, N.Y. -- Mormon missionary Laura Bergeson is getting used to The Question. It comes from the curious who wander into this rural outpost of western New York to explore the exhibit hall of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church.
" 'So, are you guys Christian?' " Bergeson repeats The Question with a weary smile. The answer, Mormons say, is emphatically yes.
The question is on the minds of voters on the religious right as Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential candidate who is also a Mormon, prepares to deliver an address today designed to convince evangelical Christians that he shares their religious values.
That could be a tough task, because many of those voters, a core Republican constituency, believe Romney's church lies far outside the bounds of Christianity. His task has taken on a new urgency since GOP rival Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, has soared in the polls with less than a month before the Iowa caucuses.
Almost one-third of Americans of all faiths surveyed in August by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press said they do not regard Mormons as Christian. Among white evangelicals who attend church at least weekly, more than half said they believe that the Mormon religion is not Christian.
Unless Romney, who will speak at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Tex., treads carefully, the speech could be a disaster for his campaign, said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. "His church has beliefs that other Christians just can't accept," he said.
Like all Christians, Mormons worship Jesus Christ as the son of God who atoned for their sins by dying on the cross, and they study the Bible as the word of God.
But, unlike traditional Christians, Mormons also revere the Book of Mormon equally with the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. They believe that Jesus visited the Americas after he was crucified and that he will return and reign from the United States and Jerusalem. They believe that the dead can be baptized, that God was once a man and that a human can become like a god. And, they say, God speaks through living apostles and prophets, such as Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the Mormon Church.
Mormons believe the faith's founder, Joseph Smith Jr., a Palmyra farmer, was guided by an angel to a set of ancient records etched on golden plates. Those records, which include an account of Jesus Christ's appearance in the Americas after his crucifixion, are in the Book of Mormon.
For many traditional Christians, such ideas are heresy.
"It is fascinating," said Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "It's just not Christianity."
Mormons say such pronouncements are not only hurtful, they're just plain wrong.
"We don't understand why anybody would turn around and say the Mormon Church is not Christian when the very center, the very core of everything we teach, everything we believe, is centered in the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus," said Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the leading governing body of the church.
Since it was founded in Palmyra in 1830, the Mormon Church has, at least in numbers, cut a wide swath across the American religious landscape. Mormonism has become the fourth-largest religion in the United States, with 6 million adherents in the country and 7 million abroad.
But many outside Mormonism are unfamiliar with it. More than half of Americans surveyed in the Pew poll said they knew little or nothing about the faith. Asked to give a one-word impression of Mormonism, 75 percent said "polygamy," a practice that Mormons repudiated more than 100 years ago, and 57 percent called it a cult.
Romney's speech is being compared to the 1960 speech given by John F. Kennedy to dispel concerns among Protestant voters about his Catholic faith.
But those voters were familiar with Kennedy's faith. "Mormonism is a very complicated theology," said Jan Shipps, a Mormon scholar. "When John Kennedy was running for president, [non-Catholics] were scared of the Catholics, but at least they knew what Catholicism was."
Because of their doctrine and practices, Mormons have spent much of their history battling discrimination and persecution.
Shortly after the Book of Mormon was printed in 1830, Smith and his band of followers were forced to flee Palmyra, which had become hostile to them. They were then hounded out of communities in Missouri and Illinois, where Smith was killed by a mob in 1844.
After Smith died, most Mormons went to Utah. They founded Salt Lake City, where the faith is now based.
Smith taught that the true church of Jesus Christ disappeared with the death of Christ's last apostle and that Christianity lapsed into darkness -- the "great apostasy," Mormons call it -- for almost 18 centuries. He also said that God used him to restore the "only true church" to the Earth.
Mormons have dropped some of the faith's more notorious teachings. In addition to believing that polygamy was sanctioned by God, they believed until 1978 that God did not allow black people to serve in their priesthood. They have rejected both doctrines, but they still allow only men to serve as priests.
In Palmyra, tens of thousands of visitors -- Mormons and non-Mormons -- annually stream through the exhibit hall and visit the surrounding historic sites, including the cabin in which Mormons believe the angel first visited Smith, the grove of trees where he said he saw visions of God and Jesus Christ, and the shop where the Book of Mormon was printed.
To the small but thriving Mormon community that has returned, the questions facing Romney are puzzling.
"I think we're the epitome of Christianity, to be honest," said Chris Cottrell, 36, a Mormon convert who was baptized three months ago and lives near Palmyra. "Because we believe in modern-day prophecy doesn't make us any less Christian."