By Lauren Ely | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s 7 a.m. on a Sunday. Why is my alarm going off? I reach over to hit snooze when I remember that I have to go to church this morning, and my stomach starts to knot like it does before I give a speech in front of a class.
Normally, going to church wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for me, but today I’m not attending the same church as I regularly do. Today I will be attending the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When I decided to venture in to the Mormon church, I thought, “How different can it really be?” The more I read on the Internet answered that question. In fact, the more I read, the more I didn’t want to attend the church service, or sacrament meeting, as Mormons call it.
Was I about to walk in to a cult? Were they going to try and convert me? Or was I being ignorant and naÃ¯ve for believing what the media and Internet portray Mormons?
It also made me question the upcoming political election. Do people know whom they are voting for if they vote for Mitt Romney?
Flagler College associate professor of humanities, Dr. James Rowell, explained the conflict between traditional Christians and Mormons. “It is probably easier for a Mormon to consider him or herself a Christian than for a non-Mormon [Catholic or Protestant] to see a Mormon as a Christian,” Rowell said. “Since Mormonism extends the scriptures and the prophetic role of Christianity [but stems from it], many Catholics and Protestants may not take too kindly to that.”
It is important to first understand some of the main distinctions between Mormons and Christians.
Joseph Smith founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1820s. Mormons believe not only in the Bible but also in the Book of Mormon. The introduction to the Book of Mormon states, “The Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible. It’s a record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains, as does the Bible, the fullness of the everlasting gospel.”
You can see how this directly conflicts with Christian beliefs written out in Deuteronomy 4:2, “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take anything from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.”
For Christians, Jesus is believed to have been born of the Virgin Mary, whereas Mormons believe that Jesus had a natural birth. Christians also believe in the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one – while Mormons believe in three separate Gods.
I felt comfortable and at ease as I pulled in to the parking lot of Good News Church, a Presbyterian church in St. Augustine. I entered pastor Smiley Sturgis’ office and shook his hand; there was an inherent trust that could only come from 22 years of attending Presbyterian services.
“It’s interesting, we live in a day where you’re never supposed to say anyone is wrong, and everybody’s beliefs are equally valid,” Sturgis said. “Jesus said that we should beware of wolves that come to you in sheep’s clothing. Sometimes people look really good, but they are hard to spot because wolves don’t dress like wolves, the wolves dress like sheep.”
Sturgis is referring to Matthew 7:15 in the Bible where Jesus warns his people against false prophets.
“What I would consider a cult is a group of people that would claim to be Christians but would add new revelation to the Bible and would deny one of the major doctrines of their Christian faith. That, to me, is what would make Mormonism different from Islam or Hinduism. Islam and Hinduism wouldn’t claim to be a Christian faith, but The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does. They speak as though they are Christian people and yet they would have the characteristics of what would be a cult.”
The common belief that the Mormon church is in fact a cult, among a few other beliefs, is what led me to explore it. I wondered how Mormons felt about people bashing their faith. For instance, saying they aren’t real Christians, they practice polygamy, stockpile and wear “magic” underwear.
“I like to think of myself as normal. I like to go to the beach. I play soccer. I watch SportsCenter every morning religiously. I play PlayStation,” Flagler College senior and soccer player Josiah Holtz said.
Holtz said the things people said about his religion used to bother him when he was younger. “I didn’t know the truth. When you have one foot on one side of the fence and another foot on the other side of the fence, you’re like, ‘Where am I? Where am I taking my stand?'”
Holtz was raised Mormon, but when he was 10 his parents divorced. During the “busyness” of his parents divorce his family was inactive in the church. “I bounced around and didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life or if I even wanted to be a part of this church,” Holtz said.
Holtz said he never doubted there was a God, but he didn’t know what way to follow him. Around the age of 18, he decided to investigate the church more. “After I knew with surety that this is right, that’s when I decided to go serve my mission down in Suriname [South America].”
Now when Holtz is asked these controversial questions, he smiles and handles them with ease and says it gives him a chance to set the record straight. Before continuing, he references a Simpsons episode where two aliens knock on Homer’s door and Homer says, “Oh no, the Mormons are here.” For two years, Holtz went door-to-door sharing his beliefs.
“I got crazy questions from, ‘Do you guys sacrifice people during your church service?’ to, ‘I heard you guys are allowed to have more than one wife.’ At first I would laugh them off, but then I realized these people are being sincere and honest, and they really want to know. Depending on their sincerity, I’ll always give them the truth,” Holtz said.
One aspect of his faith that stood out was a baptism ceremony held in Mormon temples. Mormons will hold a baptism for the dead, in which a member of the church is baptized in place of the deceased. “We can do baptisms for the dead. We don’t baptize dead people,” Holtz said with a laugh. “We believe that everyone has a fair chance [going to heaven]. In the spirit world, that dude from Africa and Suriname in 10 A.D. will still have the opportunity to accept Jesus.”
The longer I talked with Josiah, the more I began to develop trust, or maybe it was just how I’ve often heard people talk about Mormons – they’re easy to trust because they’re always so good looking. I knew that what he believed was different, and I may not agree with it, but I didn’t get the feeling he was a part of some crazy religious sect.
It was this attitude I took with me as I opened the doors to the LDS church of the St. Augustine Ward.
Besides the dress being a tad more conservative, there was nothing out of the ordinary. The first hour of the sacrament meeting, the part of the service I was staying for, is only the first part of a three-hour service Mormons attend every Sunday. In the second hour kids go to Sunday school and adults go to adult classes. In the last hour kids stay with their age group, and the men and women separate to learn their responsibilities within the church and the family.
During the sacrament meeting the congregation sang hymns and took communion. The only other noticeable difference was that instead of one single speaker, for example, a pastor, there were two speakers. Each week the speakers vary, but this week’s speakers included the bishop’s son and Elder Michael Gebhard. Two more men gave their testimonies, and to conclude the bishop addressed the congregation.
Gebhard and Elder Zachery Snow, missionaries for the church, met with me afterwards to explain Mormon beliefs more in depth. “We believe in both [Bible and Book of Mormon],” Gebhard said.
“One doesn’t replace the other, but they really go hand-in-hand to compliment and complete the other,” Snow said. “In the Book of Mormon it talks about don’t add or take away, and it’s talking about the doctrine or the teachings of Jesus Christ. When it says it at very end of Revelation, that’s more talking about the book of Revelation. So we don’t add or take away from what he taught because if we do, we’re teaching our own ideas or thoughts.”
Gebhard explained how Mormons believe that after the death of Jesus some doctrines have been changed or lost. One of the examples of writings that have been lost regarded the Trinity being three separate beings, and through Smith it has been restored.
Snow told me how he chose the Mormon church. Like Holtz, he was raised in the church but remained a skeptic. He distanced himself from the church for five years. “It felt good. I like the idea, but I had a hard time really believing it,” Snow said. “Through the Holy Ghost is how I got my answer. It’s been able to overcome any of my questions, and I know that in time they’ll be answered.”
What about all those weird things we hear about Mormons? Gebhard said Smith received revelation from God that “latter-days” should not use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea and illegal drugs. Caffeine is not included, but they believe in moderation of all things. The core of the revelation is basic – don’t be addicted to anything.
And what about those rumors about undergarments and stockpiling? Gebhard said everything is based on a little bit of truth. “Of course the public blows things out of proportion. They still talk about polygamy, which ended over 100 years ago. It’s really not bad to talk about because it’s who we are, and if you accept who you are, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
While I was becoming more educated on the differences between the Mormon church and my Christian faith, I began to realize some people may not be educated at all. According to a study done in 2007 by the Pew Forum On Religion and Public Life, Americans unaffiliated with any particular religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers at 16.1 percent.
The United States is supposed to have a separation of church and state, but I believe religious affiliation of presidential nominees still plays a role in their electability. The United States has never had a Mormon president and only two presidents have had no religious affiliation – Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.
With the 2012 election looming, I wondered what people thought about the range of beliefs from candidates and whether it mattered for their vote.
Fred Blonder, 74, is a retired high school teacher in St. Augustine. Blonder has also been an atheist for most of his life. “I believed in God until the seventh or eighth grade. When I first learned about the Holocaust and that, in fact, there have been many holocausts, I started questioning the existence of God,” Blonder said. “I also observed that different religions had different beliefs about God, these beliefs seemed to separate us from one another and that they all too often led to horrible torture and wars.”
Blonder said the religion of candidates will only play a part in his vote if it interferes with the setting of policies and the rights of all humans. “Separation of church and state is extremely important. We have already tilted much too far with our Supreme Court and many state governments in blurring this separation.”
Chairman of the St. Johns County Republican Party, Harlan Mason, doesn’t think voters are focused on the religion of candidates. “Voters are focused on their concerns about the economy and about jobs and gas prices. I just don’t think it’s on their minds,” Mason said.
Mason compared the importance of religion in this election to the 2008 election. “[President] Barack Obama’s religion is a radicalized form of Christianity. He went to a church that had a radical minister [Jeremiah Wright] whose form of Christianity is more of a social justice, and that didn’t affect him.”
In November 2011, Reuters released a poll of 1,505 Americans that mirrors Mason’s thoughts. The survey found that only one in five Americans would object to a candidate whose beliefs were different than their own. Eight in 10 Americans said creating jobs is the nation’s most important priority, while six in 10 said reducing the government budget is critical.
However, when asked about religion and the presidency, 29 percent of Americans said they would be uncomfortable with an evangelical Christian in the job, 53 percent would be uncomfortable with a Mormon, 64 percent with a Muslim and 67 percent would be uncomfortable with an atheist as president.
What will this mean for Romney? Flagler College head athletic trainer and senior woman administrator Jennifer Rinnert voted for Rick Perry in the Florida primary. Rinnert said the religion of candidates is important to her, but it wasn’t the main reason why she chose the candidate she chose.
“[If Romney wins the nomination] I would still vote Republican. I am a strong Republican.”
I laugh as I remember my queasy stomach and tense feelings before attending the Mormon service, and as I reflect, there are two things that have stuck with me.
The first is something Snow identified. All forms of Christianity, however different they may be, are all Christ-centered.
The second is something that Sturgis left me with.
“We’re electing a commander-in-chief not a theologian-in-chief. I would fly with a Mormon pilot as long as he was a good pilot.”