Mormon Moment; Romney's Run Spotlights Tension over Faith's Distinctive Beliefs - and Missouri Is at the Center of Many; RELIGION
Townsend, Tim, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
INDEPENDENCE, MO. - With a stark white statue of Jesus - his arms stretched out before him, palms up in invitation - four missionaries sing hymns to carry a message Mormons have been trying to get across for generations.
They work six days a week at the visitors center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, declaring to all who will stop and listen that they worship Jesus Christ.
And yet the missionaries work against a backdrop far bigger than an 8-foot-tall likeness of Christ.
The young women are on peculiar soil, just feet from a small, scrubby plot of land sacred only within Mormonism. It's a setting that in some ways distracts from their effort to draw ties between Mormons and other Christians.
In 1831, founder Joseph Smith declared that the righteous would gather in Independence to greet the second coming of Jesus Christ - yet another of his prophecies that estranged the faith from traditional Christianity.
"I feel so humble knowing what will happen here," said Camille Cashmore, 21, who is on an 18-month mission from California. "This is where God called me to be, to help build up Zion."
Few places have greater historic and religious significance to Mormons than western Missouri. Likewise few places have been the site of greater Mormon conflict.
In the 1830s, Smith's prophecies sent thousands of the converted west from Ohio and upstate New York to claim their New Jerusalem. Disputes with Missourians led to a bloody Mormon War that ended only when the state's governor issued an "extermination order" to expel Smith's followers.
Today, few places are better to contemplate the evolving - but still uncertain - relationship between Mormonism and the country where it was founded.
On the one hand, Missouri symbolizes how far Mormons have come. At least 66,000 Mormons now live in the state, more than triple the number of just three decades ago. Most recently, the LDS church has built a temple in Kansas City, near the epicenter of the Mormon War.
But Missouri also serves to highlight the intractable differences between mainstream Christianity and Mormon theology.
Independence and other nearby sites in western Missouri - including a pasture 70 miles north that Smith tied to the Garden of Eden - serve to emphasize distinctive Mormon beliefs. Those differences are amplified by Mormons' new scriptures, peculiar doctrines and the abandoned practice of polygamy.
A November poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that half of non-Mormons do not consider Mormons Christian and when asked to describe the faith in one word, the most common response was "cult."
That tension of a faith still on the edges of acceptance and yet growing in popularity has surfaced with the nomination of Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate for president. It has been highlighted further by the popularity of the Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon," which pokes fun at elements of the faith.
All the attention has added up to what has been dubbed the "Mormon moment." And many Mormons have greeted it with a measure of ambivalence. A January Pew poll reinforces that anxiety, with two- thirds of Mormons saying they don't believe they are accepted as part of mainstream society.
"I think some people have a sense of anxiety, and maybe a little hesitancy to speak up and share right now," said Ben Munson, a Lake Saint Louis resident who serves on the church's regional public affairs council. "But there are others who look at this moment as a huge opportunity to share the gospel with a co-worker or a friend."
A NEW JERUSALEM
Long before this Mormon moment, Americans were fixated by a new and strange Christian movement - one that triggered conflict wherever it was practiced.
Smith burst onto the young nation's religious landscape during the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and '30s, a period of religious revival that included widespread belief across American Christianity that the return of Jesus Christ was imminent. …