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White House campaign puts the focus on Mormons; many resent the misconceptions and stereotypes

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    SALT LAKE CITY — To Don Lounsbury, it’s just another chapter in the same old story — his church is being maligned, misrepresented and misunderstood — only this time it’s happening as part of the campaign for the White House.
    Like Republican candidate Mitt Romney, the 72-year-old retired teacher is a Mormon, and he is keenly aware of the white-hot spotlight Romney’s run for president has focused on the faith.
    ‘‘It’s the same old thing,’’ said Lounsbury, who retired to St. George, Utah, from Oregon 15 years ago. ‘‘We’ve always been picked on, but of course, so were the early Christians.’’ ‘‘I’m not bothered by it,’’ he added. ‘‘Because I know the church is true.’’
    His wife of 52 years, however, has some trepidation.
    ‘‘I’m afraid of the backlash on the church,’’ 69-year-old Ethie Lounsbury said. If Romney becomes president ‘‘and it doesn’t go well, they will bash not only him, but the church.’’
    Despite Romney’s attempts to keep the campaign focused on issues, questions about Mormons and their religious practices such as wearing sacred undergarments and conducting secret ceremonies inside their temples have dogged the candidate and, by extension, the 178-year-old Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
    Some Mormons are frustrated by persistent misconceptions and stereotypes — for example, that all Mormons are polygamists (The Mormon Church renounced polygamy in 1890) or have horns. They have also been hit with allegations that Mormonism is more cult than religion, that it is a heretical perversion of Christian doctrine, that it is secretive, exclusive, elitist and racist.
    ‘‘You can feel persecuted just from having people every single day misunderstand what you believe,’’ said Jana Riess, a Mormon convert and the Cincinnati-based co-editor of ‘‘Mormonism for Dummies.’’
    Riess is frequently tapped by reporters as an expert on her faith. The good news, she said, is that the news media are getting it right most of the time. But ‘‘I’m not sure the memo is getting down to the people in the pews,’’ she said. Sometimes ‘‘I’m banging my head against a wall.’’
    Romney’s first-place finish in Tuesday’s Michigan primary suggests Mormons won’t soon get a break from the scrutiny.
    While some see the attention as an irritant, others regard it as a blessed opportunity to do what the faith says they are called to do — spread the Gospel.
    ‘‘I’ve enjoyed it and hope it doesn’t end. I’m not fatigued. I’m proud of the church and could shout it from the rooftops,’’ said Robert Nye, 48, president of the Des Moines Stake, a collection of Mormon congregations much like a Roman Catholic diocese.
    In Iowa, Nye caucused for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and turned local curiosity about Mormonism into a teachable moment. He went on a radio talk show to discuss Mormon beliefs and taught a Sunday school class at a Methodist church.
    ‘‘People just wanted to know a little bit more about what we believed. For them it was ’Why is religion even an issue and what’s so different about the Mormons that we should be worried?’’’ he said.
    Persecution is a central part of the Mormon story.
    The church was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, who claimed that God and Jesus appeared to him in a forest grove and implored him to restore the true church to the world. Smith further said that an angel, Moroni, led him to a set of buried gold plates that when translated from its ancient script became the Book of Mormon.
    During the 1800s, Mormons were repeatedly attacked and driven from their homes, making their way west from New York to Ohio and Illinois, where Smith, a candidate for president, was shot and killed in 1844 by a mob while in jail. Mormons again fled, settling in the Utah Territory.
    Today the faith claims 13 million members worldwide, more than 5.7 million of them in the United States, where Mormonism is the fourth-largest denomination.
    Randy Parker, a 36-year-old Mormon living in American Fork, complained that religion is being used as a test of political fitness for Romney but not for the other candidates. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a onetime evangelical Baptist minister, has not been asked to explain his faith in the same way, Parker said.
    ‘‘At what point does a religion attain the status of just being accepted generally?’’ Parker asked. ‘‘I don’t know, but Mormonism isn’t there. It’s kind of opened my eyes, really about the rest of the country.’’
    Similarly, Ken Jennings, the Mormon software engineer from Salt Lake City who won $2.5 million on ‘‘Jeopardy!’’ in 2004 to become the most successful contestant in the game show’s history, said: ‘‘I guess my feeling is I expected better of America. As a Mormon and an American, I’m feeling a little disillusioned.’’
    Publicly, leaders of the church are dealing with the Romney ride as they do everything — with optimism.
    ‘‘I think over the long term this is going to be a very, very positive thing for us,’’ said Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Ballard and others have been visiting the editorial boards at newspapers and magazines to discuss Mormonism.
    ‘‘We’re wanting to be a part of the conversation because we do not want people defining us,’’ he said. ‘‘Whether we clear up all the misunderstandings is something else, but we certainly had the chance to talk to them about real issues.’’

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