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It's a big year for the Mormons, what with one thing and another. Mitt Romney is a serious candidate for president, so serious that competitors have sniped at his religion, an unusual political tactic in these ecumenical times. There's never been a Mormon president.
Coincidentally (as far as we know), Romney's presidential race is contemporaneous with the release of a movie dramatizing the darkest moment in Mormon history, the massacre of some 120 non-Mormons in a Utah meadow 150 years ago. Most of the victims were Arkansans.
Then there was the high-profile criminal trial in Utah involving a renegade Mormon group that still practices polygamy, an aspect of early Mormonism that was renounced by the church in 1890, but remains a fascinating and scandalous subject to non-Mormons, some of whom suspect that the Mormons aren't as reformed as they claim to be.
But if you think any of this would distract a Mormon from his proselytism, you don't know your Mormons. On a warm summer morning in North Little Rock, Elder Brady and Elder Blickenstaff are peddling salvation door to do, their enthusiasm and optimism undiminished by consumer lack of interest.
The titles are traditional, and misleading. All Mormon missionaries call themselves “Elder,” and these two aren't eager to give out their first names. Pressed, Elder Brady admits to being Steven from Bountiful, Utah. Elder Blickenstaff is Jacob from Camarillo, Calif. Brady is 20, Blickenstaff 21. “Elder” means “teacher,” they say, and they won't retain the title when their tour of missionary duty is up. That's only a few weeks away, in both cases. Brady says he'll go home to Utah, go to college, find a career and a girl to marry. Blickenstaff says he'll finish college, go to medical school, “and down the line somewhere get married.” While in Arkansas, they share an apartment as well as mission duties.
On-duty, they carry small bags containing the King James Bible and the Book of Mormon, both of which are considered holy, both of which their religion is founded on. They wear white, short-sleeved shirts, dark pants, ties and cushion-soled shoes. At one time, Mormon missionaries wore hats, making them even more visible in a hatless era, but they've given that up.
The first door they knock on this morning is answered by a woman who responds to their offer to inform her about Mormonism by saying, in a friendly manner, “I have my own church. I go to Levy Baptist.” But she wishes them luck, and says “I admire y'all.” The missionaries ask if she knows anybody who needs to hear their message of faith. She doesn't. Neither does anybody else in the area, though some of them probably are tempted to sic the Mormons on an unendearing neighbor.
From door to door, there's little difference. One man says that religion-wise, “I'm pretty happy where I'm at, and if I don't get enough there, I've got a son-in-law who's a Baptist preacher, and he works out on me.”
A reporter asks Brady if there are Baptists in Utah. “Not as many” he says emphatically. Blickenstaff says that in California, “Nobody talks about religion. It's hard to know what anybody is.”
One woman seems mildly interested while Blickenstaff explains that Mormons believe Jesus Christ re-established his church on earth through a living prophet, and that living prophet today is Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the church's formal name. But in the end, all she does is accept a coupon that will let her order the Book of Mormon through the mail. Nobody invites the missionaries in to talk more about their beliefs. One woman has water running in the kitchen. Another is on her way to the beauty shop.
Do they ever go to homes where they know somebody's inside, but won't come to the door? “ALL THE TIME!” Brady says. Sometimes they see people peeking through curtains, then fleeing to the back of the house when they realize the Mormons have spotted them.
Sometimes they're mistaken for police, or Jehovah's Witnesses. Once, they were in a home when the Jehovah's Witnesses knocked at the door. The lead witness saw that the homeowner was holding the Book of Mormon. He handed her “The Watchtower,” and said, “This is better.”
After the movie “September Dawn” reached Little Rock, the missionaries got a couple of questions about the film and the massacre, Brady said. “We say it was an unfortunate incident that took place, and there's not enough information to know exactly what happened, but it's not something the church is proud of having on its record. I haven't seen the movie myself. I probably will.”
When they're not going door to door, the missionaries meet with people who've shown interest in Mormonism. “We spend a lot of our time teaching,” Brady said. And, he said, “We provide services for anybody who's in need, whether they're members of our church or not. If they need help moving, or help around the yard, we'll do it.”
Brady and Blickenstaff work under the supervision of Gary Batchelor, mission president of the Arkansas-Little Rock Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The mission extends north to the Missouri border, south to Hope, east as far as Oxford, Miss., an area that includes Memphis, and west to Russellville. Batchelor estimates there are 12,000 to 15,000 Mormons within the Mission boundaries, and close to 50 congregations.
The northwest quarter of Arkansas is part of the Tulsa Mission, and not in Batchelor's jurisdiction. He has no estimate of the number of Mormons there, but the Mormon population in Benton and Washington counties has grown noticeably in recent years as the population of the area has grown. And for the same reason — newcomers employed by the many companies that have located in the area to be close to Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville. The two counties have 13 Mormon churches between them, and two more churches are just across the state line in Missouri. One source estimates that the Mormon population of Arkansas had reached 20,000 by the year 2000.
Batchelor is 66. Unlike the missionaries, he didn't volunteer for the post he now holds. He was chosen by church leaders to serve a three-year term, and says he's not even sure what criteria were used. His wife, Kay, is with him. “Husband and wife always serve together.” Batchelor has an office in a North Little Rock church, but says that he and his wife spend most of their time in the field with the missionaries. His duties include pairing up the missionaries, assigning them to particular areas, and moving them to other areas as needs be. This is the Batchelors' second mission. They served 19 months in Micronesia.
Batchelor grew up in Utah, and was baptized at 8, the normal age for it. He graduated from Brigham Young University at Provo, Utah, with a degree in education. He's lived in Nevada for the last 40-plus years, working as a high school teacher and coach. For the last 31 years, he was head basketball coach at a small school in the southern part of the state. When his mission work ends, a year from now, he'll go back to Nevada.
“We encounter hostility sometimes,” Batchelor said. “People accuse us of being a cult, of not being real Christians. We thank them and move on, we don't argue. But there's not much hostility in this area. Most people are kind and warm and will visit with us.”
The hostile and the curious are apt to ask about polygamy. “In the early days of the church, polygamy was instituted by divine revelation,” Batchelor said. “It was practiced for a number of years, then by divine revelation it was no longer practiced. Now it's not part of official doctrine at all.”
Similarly, the priesthood, the church leadership, was open only to white men for many years, and Mormons had a reputation of being anti-black. In 1978, men of all races were declared eligible for the priesthood, including blacks. The priesthood is still closed to women. “We think they have greater roles as mothers and heads of families,” Batchelor said.
Although a Mormon is running for president, he won't get the church's endorsement, Batchelor said. “The church has never officially endorsed a candidate. We won't endorse Mitt Romney. Our position is always to maintain neutrality. Individuals are asked to study candidates and issues and make our best choice.”
If the Mormon church is politically unmoved by Mitt Romney's religion, others are not. Al Sharpton, a black minister and civil rights activist, said publicly that “those that really believe in God” would defeat the Mormon presidential candidate. Romney said Sharpton's remark was proof that bigotry still exists. Sharpton said the remark was taken out of context and was not intended to be anti-Mormon, but he added that Romney should be pressed about his church's history and beliefs.
Another political preacher, Bill Keller, a fundamentalist Christian operating out of Florida, said that supporting Romney was like voting for Satan. And a member of John McCain's campaign reportedly made anti-Mormon remarks at a Republican meeting in Iowa. A McCain spokesman apologized.
Religious differences have flourished in the Republican presidential race, and not just because of Romney's candidacy. Rudolph Giuliani has been criticized both by fellow Catholics and by conservative Protestants for being “pro-choice.” A supporter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who is an ordained Baptist minister, made what sounded like anti-Catholic remarks about Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. Huckabee himself attracts some voters and repels others because of his religious background. On the Democratic side, Sen. Barack Obama has been accused of Islamist tendencies.
What effect “September Dawn” will have on the race, if any, is unclear. Both the Romney campaign and the Mormon Church seem to be mostly ignoring it, and the media haven't given it a big push either. It hasn't been well received either critically or commercially. In Little Rock, it was shown only at the “art house” theater, generally home to lightly attended films.
Still, a movie that shows Mormons as murderers of small children can't be helpful to a Mormon politician; a voter might wander in. The fictional parts that Hollywood has injected — the romance between Mormon boy and Gentile girl, the horse whisperer, etc. — are predictably sappy. But the actual history is nearer the truth than most Hollywood movies get: The Mormons slaughtered a bunch of people guilty only of passing through Mormon territory. The big historical question about Mountain Meadows that remains unanswered is whether Brigham Young, then the head of the Mormon church, either ordered or condoned the massacre. The movie answers “yes.” Mormon historians generally absolve Young of blame. A couple of PBS documentaries have been inconclusive.
Batchelor said he hadn't heard from his missionaries that Arkansans were showing a great interest in Mountain Meadows, but, “It was a sad event, no doubt about that. Things got out of hand. A terrible disaster happened.”
Things getting out of hand, a terrible disaster happening, a sad event — Mitt Romney may be worrying about that possibility, late at night.