By Sarah Stiefvater
Mitt Romney’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has put a national spotlight on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Romney is the first national candidate who is a member of the faith commonly known as Mormonism, and the attention has initiated conversations about the church’s presence in communities across the country, including Buena Vista. Jon Huntsman, who was a presidential candidate until last month, is also a Mormon.
The LDS church has thrived in the city since Mormon Sunday school services were held more than 110 years ago, but there is still discomfort among some local residents.
“I think Mormons are still sometimes thought of [as] being clan-like,” said Steve Baldridge, a member of the LDS church and professor at the Mormon-affiliated Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista.
Kary Smout, an English professor at Washington and Lee University and an active Mormon, agrees.
“We live in a society that is really scared of cults,” Smout said.
Some of that discomfort comes from not understanding the fundamental beliefs of Mormonism, and how it differs from other religions. Baldridge says that people often have doubts about whether Mormons are Christians.
Smout points to the church’s official name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as evidence that Mormons are Christians.
“Mormons are not Orthodox Christians,” Smout said. “They are restored Christians.”
The biggest difference, Smout and Baldridge agree, is that Mormons have a different conception of the Trinity.
Joseph Smith, who founded the LDS church in New York in 1830, claimed that God came to him when he was just 14 years old and told him that the Trinity was wrong. Mormons challenge the Orthodox Christian belief that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist as co-equals.
The church now has more than 14 million members worldwide. About five million adults in the United States identify themselves as Mormons. By contrast, about 75 million adult Americans are Catholic, the religion of Rick Santorum, Romney’s closest rival for the Republican nomination. But both groups are dwarfed by the nation’s 150 million Protestants, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Although they make up a small percentage of the population, a larger majority of Mormons consider themselves connected to their faith than people of other denominations.
According to the Pew Forum, 82 percent of Mormons in the United States say that religion is very important in their lives. Asked the same question, 56 percent of the general public responded that their religion is very important to them.
Baldridge says that while Christians are more focused on the mystery of the unity of God, he thinks Mormons are more careful about looking at the scriptures and teachings of church leaders.
“I think that Mormons in some way have an affinity for reading [the scriptures] straight,” Baldridge said.
“We testify that Jesus Christ is our Lord and savior,” he said.
Many people also associate the church with how it is portrayed in the mass media, such as on the fictional HBO show “Big Love” and TLC’s reality series “Sister Wives.” Both programs focus on polygamous relationships, a practice that is continued by some splinter groups but was abandoned by the official LDS church in the late 1800s after it was outlawed by Congress.
“They felt that it somehow fell into the same category as other abuses of people, like slavery,” Baldridge said. “So the president of the church said that where they found out that any further plural marriages occurred that the members would be excommunicated.”
Television programs like “Big Love” and “Sister Wives” contribute to the public’s confusion and discomfort with the church.
“The media doesn’t know what to make of us,” Smout said.
Lisa Knudson, a member of the LDS church in Buena Vista, says she is excited that increased media coverage of the church in recent years has brought about more awareness.
“We’ve made lots of progress in the last years,” Knudson said. “There was a lot of anti-church literature when we got here 15 years ago.”
Although the LDS church has a century-old presence in Buena Vista, the Mormon population remained relatively small until 1996, when the Southern Seminary Junior College for women became SVU.
According to the school’s website, SVU is the nation’s only liberal arts college that embraces the values of the LDS church, setting it apart from other larger Mormon-affiliated schools like Brigham Young University, which has campuses around the country. BYU’s main campus in Provo, Utah has nearly 30,000 undergraduate students.
As of fall 2011, 92 percent of SVU’s 800 students were members of the LDS church. Chase Sawyer, an SVU student who is not Mormon, says he finds himself “being somewhat of an advocate of the church.”
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that Mormonism is more similar to a cult than a religion,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer says he has had to change some of his daily routines to comply with church standards, like avoiding caffeine, which Mormons consider a harmful drug.
“I’ve had to cut back on the coffee and I have to shave more than I like, but as a whole I’ve been fairly happy with my experience at SVU,” Sawyer said.
Baldridge says that locals were initially unsettled by the sudden influx of Mormons.
“I think that when the transition occurred, there were a lot of people that were scared that the town was going to get taken over by Mormons,” Baldridge said. “And it took maybe 12 years before people would say, ‘I know them and I know that I don’t need to be afraid of them taking over the town.’”
Since then, the Mormon population in the area has grown eight-fold, and SVU’s student body has increased from 74 to more than 800.
“We’ve got five student congregations and three family congregations, all in Rockbridge County,” Baldridge says. “That’s a higher concentration compared to the general population anywhere outside of the Intermountain West.”
Several years ago, local Mormons tried to build a new church within Lexington city limits, but they were denied by City Council.
Anti-Mormon feelings were not behind the decision, Smout says. Rather, the city was concerned that having a church built on a prime location would lead to lost revenue for the city.
“It was not anti-Mormon,” Smout said. “It was an economics question.”
The church ended up being opened in Rockbridge County in 2007, and Smout says it worked out for the best.
Baldridge agrees that things have gotten better for Mormons in the area, but says that the church still has a way to go before it is fully accepted. The opposition to the church has become much weaker in the past decades, and he hopes that continues.
“I just wish that we’d see that we’re all trying to help each other,” he says. “We all believe in goodness, we all believe in obeying the commandments and helping our neighbor.”