As the choice of the Republican Party for the presidency of the United States, Mitt Romney’s candidacy gave the American public a unique opportunity to take a closer look at Mormonism, a religion whose members maintain a steadfast devotion and fidelity to their beliefs despite a contentious history of persecution and emotionally charged practices. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as the Mormon Church is officially known, Mr. Romney’s religious views understandably came under close scrutiny by an oftentimes skeptical public. But as with John Kennedy and Catholicism, the fact that Mr. Romney was a Mormon appeared, on the surface at least, as nothing more than a minor influence on his viability as a presidential candidate. In the months leading up to the election, an inquiring public could now judge for themselves some of the basic precepts of Mormonism, an American-established, 183-year-old religion. Was it now possible that, in the aftermath of the election, some longstanding misconceptions about Mormons and their beliefs could finally be laid to rest?
Perhaps no other religion has stirred as much debate and controversy as the Mormon Church. Although widely known for their worldwide missionary program, and extensive family history program, a highly respected educational system, a well-run welfare program, as well as a penchant for financial acumen and self-sufficiency, Mormons suffered form the lingering after-effects of an early church policy favorable to polygamy. This despite the fact that the Mormon Church has officially disconnected itself from the practice of polygamy for the past 123 years! Of course, it doesn’t help when an undiscerning public associates the polygamous practice of a few minor splinter groups with the Mormon Church.
As with plural marriage, the Mormon Church does not condone same-sex marriage. The family is at the center of the social structure of the church, consisting of a husband, wife, and their offspring. Traditionally, and historical edict passed down from early church leaders encouraged the establishment of large families. But that practice is likely to come under social and environmental pressure to change, acknowledging the reality that all human beings are living in an increasingly overcrowded world with decreasing, finite natural resources.
For a period of time, the Mormon Church was guilty of racial discrimination, as certain ethnic groups were excused from holding offices in the church. Currently, no racial group is disbarred from holding any church office. The Mormon Church considers itself an open religious body, and invites the public to attend worship services regardless of race, creed, or political affiliation.
On occasion, the Mormon Church has been accused of being cultist, but the actual reality is in the opposite direction. Under church policy, every individual has the basic freedom to choose the direction and nature of his or her beliefs. Blind obedience and obsequious behavior under a tyrannical authority is nonexistent within the Mormon Church.
While claiming a primary connection with the life and ministry of Jesus Chris, Mormons eschew engaging in a battle of doctrinal supremacy with other religions. Instead, they recognize the community stature and value of other religions and will limit themselves to a friendly dialogue based on mutual respect and acceptance.
Mormon missionaries represent the church throughout the world. They are bound, under church authority, to discuss doctrinal principals only after obtaining verbal consent from prospective members. They do no harangue or attempt to coerce others. While missionaries are in the front line in spreading Mormon doctrine, all members of the church are unofficial missionaries. They will discuss their religious beliefs in a friendly, open manner while avoiding any polemics.
With the stigmata of the past largely eliminated and forgotten, and backed by organizational stability and efficiency, the Mormon faithful pursue an agenda of altruism and enterprise the leads to an increasingly positive contribution to the spiritual and social well-being of the world.
Thomas M. Woodring is a retired clinical psychologist and a lifelong resident of Santa Barbara, having been born here in 1936.