A Local News Story About Mormons
The following was published earlier today by The Birmingham News on their website and will also appear in the Sunday print edition.
Featured are my awesome stake president, President Lanny Smartt, and the amazing president of the Alabama Birmingham Mission, President Richard Holzapfel.
19 October 2012 – Birmingham News Article Today
Mitt Romney’s run for president sparks questions for Mormons in Alabama
By Greg Garrison – firstname.lastname@example.org – on October 19, 2012 at 8:13 AM
HOOVER — A team of Mormon missionaries who ride their bikes around Alabama cities to knock on doors and share the Book of Mormon have been getting asked a lot of questions lately about presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
“They always ask if we’re voting for him,” said Jessica Coleman, a missionary from Bountiful, Utah, who speaks Spanish and ministers to the Hispanic community.
“They always ask about his position on immigration,” she said. “I don’t know.”
In response to the frequent questions, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has scheduled an open house on Oct. 28 at 6:30 p.m. at the LDS chapel in Indian Springs, 2720 Cahaba Valley Road, on Highway 119.
“The church is completely politically neutral in this race,” said Lanny Smartt, an attorney who serves as president of the Bessemer Stake. All leadership positions in the Latter-day Saints Church are held by volunteers. There are no paid clergy for the Salt Lake City-based denomination.
“We have to be careful never to give the impression we are supporting a candidate,” Smartt said.
“We simply don’t talk about politics,” said Richard Holzapfel, a history professor at Brigham Young University who took a three-year leave to serve as president of the Birmingham Mission, overseeing 140 young missionaries in Alabama.
That officially neutral stance hasn’t stopped others from trying to talk politics with the Mormons, who are more than willing to talk about their faith outside the context of Romney’s bid to defeat President Barack Obama on Nov. 6.
Holzapfel has been frequently invited to speak and recently took some of his missionaries with him for a presentation at Canterbury United Methodist Church.
“I’ve spoken at more churches since March than ever before,” Holzapfel said. “There’s a greater friendliness, an increased understanding.”
For nearly two centuries, Mormons have struggled against persecution in America. “Clearly, there are misperceptions of our faith,” Smartt said.
Voters are contemplating the possibility of the first Mormon president, and that has changed the attitude about their faith, LDS members say.
“Because of this spotlight that’s on our faith, many of the prejudices have gone away,” Smartt said. “That’s a positive development that would have taken decades in my opinion.”
There are about 4,000 to 5,000 Mormons in the greater Birmingham area, including Birmingham, Bessemer, Gardendale and Tuscaloosa, and more than 28,000 in Alabama.
In 2000, the Latter-day Saints opened a temple in Gardendale, just north of Birmingham. It was the first in Alabama and the 98th Mormon temple in the world. It is used for temple weddings and other rituals such as ceremonial anointings and baptism by proxy for ancestors.
Activities inside the temple are open only to Mormons who have achieved ”temple recommends” to become endowed members, based on tithing 10 percent to the church and upholding high morals including abstention from coffee, tea and alcohol.
“A lot of people have the impression we go there to worship,” Smartt said. “It’s closed on Sundays and Mondays.”
Sunday services are held in churches that are open to the public.
In the most recent presidential debate, Republican candidate Romney mentioned his service as a leader of congregations in Massachusetts. He served as both a bishop and a stake president. He described himself as a pastor, which is a term Protestants would be more familiar with that has some of the same duties.
“What he was alluding to was his five years as bishop and 10 years as stake president in Boston,” said Smartt, who has held the same positions. “In that time period he dealt with people’s personal problems. There’s a lot of one-on-one counseling with families. It takes about 40 to 50 hours a week of administration. We donate about 40 hours a week. It’s a good insight into Romney the man and especially his wife. It takes a lot of dedication.”
All bishops and stake presidents are personally approved by the top church leadership in Salt Lake City, which sends envoys worldwide to interview and vet candidates for those local offices.
Most of those church leaders have served as missionaries after they turn 18, often overseas, sharing the faith door-to-door. Romney served a two-year mission in France.
Smartt, who served a two-year mission in Venezuela as a teen, said the experiences of a missionary are eye-opening. “We think we become better citizens,” he said. “We learn about the culture of that country.”
Mormon missionaries attend a mission school for eight to 12 weeks, usually taking a crash course in a foreign language before they set off on an 18-month to two-year mission.
It’s hard for them to be too informed on politics, since they are not allowed to watch TV, even the presidential debates.
“They abstain from media,” Smartt said.
“There’s no dating, movies or video games,” Holzapfel said.
They are encouraged to vote. Most vote by absentee ballot before they leave on their mission trip.
But don’t assume all Mormons vote Republican, Holzapfel said.
“There’s a Democratic club at BYU. One of my former students is a member of Mormons for Obama. Harry Reid is also a Mormon. He’s definitely not for Romney.”
Reid, a U.S. Senator from Nevada, is the Senate Majority Leader, a Democrat, and an Obama supporter.
Members of the church are expected to vote their conscience, but not talk openly about who they support in a church setting, Holzapfel said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in the 1820s by Joseph Smith, who was considered a prophet. He said an angel brought him golden plates inscribed with the Book of Mormon, a new scripture that described Jesus appearing to Native Americans in North America.
The Latter-day Saints still suffer a stigma from the early church’s history of permitting polygamy in the 1800s, though the church now bans the practice. Romney’s grandparents were polygamous Mormons who moved to Mexico, where Romney’s father George was born. George Romney was governor of Michigan from 1963-69 and failed in a run for president in 1968.
While they were once shunned by many evangelical Protestants who considered them a cult, Mitt Romney has now been endorsed and embraced by high-profile Protestant leaders including Billy Graham.
Many former critics of Mormon theology, which differs from Catholics and Protestants in rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, have softened their stance.
“There’s no doubt we’ve noticed a significant difference in climate,” Holzapfel said. “The biggest change is people are more friendly.”
Update 21 October 2012:
This is the article as it appeared in the print edition. Very nice.