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Mormons rising: Mormons are becoming a ‘true part of the American culture’

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Mormons rising: Mormons are becoming a ‘true part of the American culture’

The sun sets behind the Mormon Temple, the centerpiece of Temple Square, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo: Douglas C. Pizac/Associated Press/file

Sid Kooyman has never felt like a stranger in a strange land.

Since moving to Jacksonville in 1986 to teach ROTC at Jacksonville State University, the career soldier assimilated himself within this close-knit college community by doing the things that virtually everyone else does, including regularly attending church. But it is where Kooyman worships that occasionally raises the eyebrows of his faithful peers.

Kooyman is a Mormon — one of an estimated 700-plus living in and around Calhoun County. He is the bishop of the Anniston ward, another term for “church,” which serves the northern half of Anniston including Weaver, Alexandria, Jacksonville, Piedmont and Ohatchee.

If there’s one thing Kooyman isn’t completely comfortable with when it comes to the public perception of his faith, it’s the label by which it’s most commonly known: Mormon. Though he doesn’t consider it offensive, Kooyman believes it’s somewhat dismissive of the true nature of his faith.

“That term was originally applied by the enemies of the church,” Kooyman said in a polite yet cautious tone. “One of the criticisms of the church is that we don’t believe in Jesus, that we aren’t Christians. But we are the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). That’s a very important distinction for us.”

As the leader of an LDS church in an area dominated by more than 300 Protestant churches, Kooyman said he’s “generally” treated with respect. “Being a religious person in the South is pretty easy,” he said. “Many of my friends and neighbors believe as I do as it concerns Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. My friends all go to church, pay tithing and obey the 10 Commandments.

“This is a good place to be a person of faith … and that includes being a member of the LDS.”

The LDS church is experiencing what a recent Newsweek cover story called a “Mormon Moment.” From Broadway to the Beltway, Mormons are everywhere.

The hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon won nine Tony Awards on Sunday. Written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the play tells the story of two wide-eyed Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda, only to be surrounded by foul-mouthed natives, gun-toting war lords and entire villages infected with AIDS.

It’s an irreverent (some say blasphemous) play, and its audience is predominately non-Mormon. Cathy Carmode Lim isn’t a fan of anyone’s faith — be it hers as a Mormon or anyone else’s — being used as a punch line. Lim, the former Books page editor for the Anniston Star, now lives in California.

“It’s frustrating that others don’t have respect for those beliefs enough to refrain from using such offensive language in connection with something some people consider sacred,” said Lim. “But at the same time, all I’ve heard indicates that the South Park creators are kind to the whole idea of Mormonism and portray Mormons as generally nice people. I know they’re not trying to be mean to Mormons or other believers.

“I’m not too troubled by the musical. Just a bit amused and the tiniest bit annoyed that they’re such vulgar people they can’t leave at least a few things well enough alone.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is making news of a different sort. Romney, who is Mormon, is the clear frontrunner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month. Yet the same poll found that many Americans are uncomfortable with the Mormon religion.

The nationwide survey asked voters to rate their comfort levels with the faiths of presidential candidates: Eighty-three percent said they were entirely or somewhat comfortable with Roman Catholics, 80 percent with Jews, 67 percent with evangelical Christians and 60 percent with Mormons.

But 36 percent said they were uncomfortable with Mormons. Only atheists and Muslims drew higher discomfort ratings.

In addition, 45 percent said they had favorable opinions of the Mormon religion, with 32 percent saying their views were unfavorable.

Another Mormon, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, could soon join Romney in the 2012 race.

They’re not the only Mormons in the spotlight.

There are 15 Mormons serving in the U.S. Congress, including Senate leader Harry Reid.

Glenn Beck is a recent convert to Mormonism.

Stephanie Meyers, author of the bestselling vampire series Twilight, is a Mormon.

HBO’s series Big Love is about a polygamist family. Sister Wives on TLC is a reality show following a fundamentalist Mormon family, including husband Cody Brown, his four wives and their 16 children. Both shows perpetuate the image of Mormons as a polygamist cult, a practice that was supported by church founder Joseph Smith but officially banned by the church in 1890.

The flood of media exposure may have a positive influence on the way Mormons are viewed, explained historian Jan Shipps, who has been studying and writing about the LDS for more than 50 years.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be an ever-increasing number of Mormons, but they are now a true part of the American culture,” she said. “No longer are they set aside as a special people. Being Mormon will no longer be the one thing Americans can be bigoted about and get away with it.”

A fast-growing church

It’s easy to pick on Mormons. Their numbers in America are dwarfed by traditional Christian denominations. They aren’t known to be outspoken, either politically or socially. There is the wholesomeness, the intentional separation from the cool kids in American society. Mormons don’t drink, don’t smoke and don’t have sex before marriage.

The LDS defines itself as an alternative to the mainstream, both culturally and spiritually — all of which ends up making Mormons easy targets, said Terryl Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

“They’re the only religious group that it’s OK to make fun of,” said Givens, who is Mormon. “If Mel Gibson had gone on a rant against Mormons, he’d still be making movies in Hollywood.”

Since its founding in upstate New York 181 years ago, enemies of the LDS have portrayed Mormons as a nation within a nation, communalists and polygamists whose radical ideas and interpretations of scriptures made them a threat to the American family.

They were forced out of Ohio and then Missouri in 1838, where Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs declared, “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state, if necessary, for the public good.”

From Missouri, they went to Illinois, where Mormon leader Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were gunned down by an angry mob on June 27, 1844. Some 30,000 Mormons were forced to flee. Brigham Young succeeded Smith and led his followers 1,300 miles to the barren desert south of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

Today, the LDS Church is the fourth largest denomination in America, with more than 6 million members in the United States and 14 million worldwide. However, Shipps disputes these numbers.

“It’s important to note that the number of Mormons is probably inflated because when someone leaves the church it takes a long time to get them off the roll,” she said. “This notion that the Mormons are the fastest growing is just wrong.”

The LDS’ growth is staggering nonetheless. The church has an estimated net worth of more than $30 billion, leading Newsweek to call it “the General Electric of American religion.”

What is remarkable about the LDS’ growth over such a relatively short time — some sociologists suggest that it mirrors the Christian church during its infancy — is that it’s hard to be a Mormon. Members are expected to give 10 percent of their income to the church. Men spend two years as unpaid missionaries. Those who are active are expected to work at the church for free and attend meetings and services throughout the week. High school students are required to attend Bible study classes every day before school for four years.

“The consensus seems to be that making religion easier makes it more attractive. Instead, the Mormon church makes it harder,” Givens said. “What we’re seeing is that people become more devoted to that which requires more sacrifice.”

The golden plates

To non-Mormons, the church’s theology can seem just too weird for mainstream religious consumption.

According to LDS doctrine, in September 1823, a simple farm boy named Joseph Smith was visited by the angel Moroni, who instructed him to go to a hill near Palmyra, N.Y., where he dug up golden plates that detailed the migration of the Israelites to America. The original tablets were taken back up to heaven. It would be four years before Moroni allowed Smith to see the plates again and translate them. Smith also received visits from God the father, Jesus, John the Baptist and saints Peter, James and John.

Today, Smith’s translation in known as the Book of Mormon, first published in 1830 and containing the religious writings of civilizations that Mormons believe existed in ancient America between 2200 B.C. and 421 A.D. The book includes a post-resurrection visit from Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon is not intended as a substitute for the Bible, rather as additional teachings of Jesus.

The LDS does not fall into the historic line of Christian churches because it is neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant. Rather, members see themselves to be a “restoration” of the original church of the Apostles as it existed in the 1st century, believing that late in that century massive heresies developed within the Christian movement that caused it to permanently deviate from the teachings of Jesus Christ. Mormons have redefined the nature of God — He’s anthropomorphic. Mormons have redefined revelation — it’s continuing and individual. Mormons have redefined the nature of what it means to be human — denying original sin. Mormons have redefined the nature of human potential — believing the literal biblical interpretation that man can be like God. Mormons redefined the Trinity — believing it to be three separate entities, Givens said.

“And that’s a lot to swallow,” he added. “Mormons deny what has historically been the basis for Christianity, which is the creed. This is why some say they aren’t Christian. But they will answer that to be a Christian is to be a follower of Jesus Christ and accept his divinity, which they unambiguously do.”

Said Kooyman, the bishop of the local ward: “The bible tells us that that the tree is known by its fruit, and the fruit of this church is fantastic. I want people to know that I believe, and our church teaches, that there is a God in heaven and His son is Jesus Christ. There has been a restoration of His church. There are prophets and apostles on this Earth.”

One reason Kooyman believes he’s been treated so well in the South is because when someone learns he’s a member of the LDS, they “just know that I am someone who is honest and can be trusted.”

Givens said that what makes Mormons likeable is more about what they do rather than what they believe. “People, in the end, are judged on how they behave, and Mormons’ standard of behavior is admirable,” Givens said. “They’re patriotic. They’re family-oriented. They live a clean life. They believe in chastity before marriage, don’t smoke or drink. They’re the kind of people that anyone would be glad to have as neighbors.”

Contact Brett Buckner at

The knock on the door

The stereotypical image of Mormons is that of neatly dressed young men in ties riding their bikes and knocking on strangers’ doors, politely accepting rejection time and time again.

But sometimes the nice guys win. Eleanor Harrast not only opened the door but her husband, Leon, invited the young men into the house.

“I remember that lunch was almost ready,” Harrast said, “and it really wasn’t a good time, but my husband was anxious to hear more.”

It was 1957, in Washington State, and the young married couple were searching for a church home. As the more “spiritually inclined,” this responsibility fell upon Leon, who was raised Presbyterian; his wife was raised Disciples of Christ.

The two missionaries shared a Book of Mormon with the couple, who two weeks later went to the local ward for a visit.

“I knew nothing about the LDS church,” Harrast said with a laugh. “I thought it was going to be like the Amish where everybody was dressed in black, and I didn’t have any black clothes. So I found the least conspicuous thing I owned and figured we’d sit in the back being as quiet as possible.”

When they entered the small church, the congregation was singing, “Put your shoulder to the wheel and push.” The people were enthusiastic and welcoming.

“We’ve been members ever since,” said Harrast, who moved with her husband to Jacksonville six years ago. “It’s like finding an instant family. Members are very good people, loving, caring, sharing, helping, serving others — very Christ like.”