The race for president is already underway. Hillary Clinton, along with other Democratic contenders like Barack Obama and John Edwards, dominate media attention, leaving readers to wonder about the Republican competition.
One such Republican presidential hopeful is Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts. Aside from a lack of front-page publicity, Romney finds himself facing other obstacles. Romney is being criticized because of his religion, according to a USA Today article by David E. Campbell and J. Quin Monson.
As a Mormon, Romney's situation harkens to the campaign of John F. Kennedy and the concerns voiced over Kennedy's Catholicism. In the article, Campbell and Monson attributed voter concerns to "the fact that Mormonism is unfamiliar to them; it is natural to be uneasy with the unknown."
With a religion claiming more than 11 million members worldwide, it seems odd that such unfamiliarity is common. Nonetheless, it might be true.
In a recent informal survey, the Gateway discovered that some UNO students base their knowledge of Mormons on what they have heard from others or on what they have seen on cable television shows like South Park and Big Love, leading to misconceptions about the faith. The practices most commonly associated with Mormons are polygamy, abstinence from coffee and tea, and door-to-door proselytizing.
Mormons, formally called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), did practice polygamy in the early days of the church. The practice began with founder Joseph Smith Jr. and continued with his successors until 1890 when, according to Mormon.org, then church president Wilford Woodruff "received a revelation that the leaders of the church should cease teaching the practice of plural marriage."
Today, any practice of polygamy is strictly prohibited by church leadership. Mark Applegarth, director of the Omaha LDS Institute of Religion, explained that members who are found participating in polygamy are excommunicated from the church. According to Mormon.org, current church president, Gordon B. Hinckley, issued the following statement regarding polygamy:
"This church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this church … If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the church can impose. Not only are those so involved in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this church."
Confusion about the modern practice of polygamy for Mormons stems from the historical practice as well as from splinter fundamentalist sects that broke off from the church early in church history. These groups are not part of the LDS church, but continue to operate independently in parts of the United States and Canada.
Mormons are not permitted to smoke or drink alcohol, coffee or tea in accordance with their religious doctrine. In 1833, Smith claimed to receive divine revelation and instructions for the health of the LDS people. Known as the "Word of Wisdom," the instructions are part of LDS scripture called the Doctrine and Covenants, which specify that members should not consume these products because of the harm they can cause to the body. Outsiders sometimes find the restrictions difficult to understand, yet members take the rules very seriously.
Caitlin Luke, LDS church member and UNO student, said that some of her non-member friends couldn't believe she didn't drink at first. However, Luke said all she needed to do was provide an explanation.
"They really respect me in the end," she said.
Young men dressed in black slacks, white shirts and black ties going door to door is a sight familiar to many. They are LDS missionaries. Applegarth explained that the sharing of the "gospel of restoration" is an important part of the LDS church. Traditionally, LDS men serve missions for the church between the ages of 19 to 21, during which they proselytize door to door. Women can also serve, but aren't required.
Typically, men serve two years. Women, however, serve only 18 months and cannot baptize because they do not have priesthood authority in the church.
Luke has two brothers and one sister who have served missions in Puerto Rico, Chile and Germany. Being far away from home in a strange place might be stressful to some, yet Luke's siblings adjusted well.
"They are so busy, there's no time to be homesick," Luke said.
While missionaries are required to focus on their work, they do take time out to keep in touch with loved ones through letter writing and phone calls home on Mother's Day and Christmas.
Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830 in New York, following visitations from heavenly messengers, according to Mormon.org. In the first vision, God and Christ told Smith not to join any of the churches that existed at that time. Subsequent visitations included the apostles Peter, James and John who restored the direct priesthood authority of Christ's church to the earth. This restoration is the foundation of the LDS church. Applegarth explained that LDS members believe their church is a restoration and not a reformation, something that sets Mormons apart from other Christian faiths.
However, the Book of Mormon also sets them apart. Mormons believe the divine scripture was obtained through the translation of golden plates found by Smith through revelation. It contains the history of a people who came to the American continent and were visited by Christ following his resurrection.
"The most spectacular of these is the Mormon belief that indigenous peoples of North and South America are descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel," said Dale Stover, UNO professor of religious studies. "There were other individuals who believed this sort of thing in the colonial period of American history, but Mormon belief in this 'myth' is enshrined in its scripture, the Book of Mormon."
If students wish to learn more about Mormonism through UNO, they can do so in Religion 2400. Mormonism is one of the religions studied in the course.
"Mormonism is a very complex and interesting social and religious movement, which plays an important role in the development of American religious and political history and merits close study," Stover said.
Regardless of the controversy surrounding the religion, one fact remains clear: Active members of the Mormon church are sincere about their beliefs.
To Luke, her religion is not just a place to go on Sunday. "We take our religion very seriously," said Luke. "It is a choice. We are doing this because it makes us happy. It seems to define you as a person."