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Mormon Like Me

As Mitt Romney draws attention to the religion, fellow LDS members are eager to share their faith

  • Savannah Jackson, 23, of Uptown, is a practicing Mormon.
Savannah Jackson, 23, of Uptown, is a practicing Mormon. (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
October 14, 2012|By Georgia Garvey, @gcgarvey | RedEye

You probably won't find them at the bar downing shots of Patron or at Starbucks waiting for a double-shot espresso, but if you think the closest you've ever been to a Mormon is a Mitt Romney bumper sticker, you're probably wrong.

As Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, travels the presidential campaign trail, and the musical "The Book of Mormon" comes to Chicago, it's Mormonism's time to shine. The more than 14 million members the LDS church counts worldwide-including 4,600 members in the Chicago area-make it a prominent Christian religion, and shows like TLC's "Sister Wives" (even if they don't reflect actual Mormon doctrine) draw pop culture attention to the faith.

"We have football players and actors and presidential candidates, so, naturally, people are curious," said Xan Aranda, 36, of Bucktown. Aranda is a former Mormon who now is working on a documentary film called "Mormon Movie" about her family and the history of LDS filmmaking. She said "there's this growing curiosity" about the religion.

For some, the questions are pretty basic: Who are Mormons, and what do they believe?

The LDS church was started in the United States in the 1800s by Joseph Smith, the faith's founding prophet. Mormons believe that Smith was given revelations that led to the discovery of the Book of Mormon, a sacred text held on par with the Bible. They believe Jesus Christ was the divine son of God and that he appeared in the U.S. to a group of indigenous people. They don't, however, believe in men marrying multiple women-no matter what "Big Love" tells you. The church stopped practicing polygamy more than 100 years ago and now throws out any members who are polygamous.

"One of the most, kind of, durable stereotypes with the church has been polygamy," said Ryan Tobler, 28, a Mormon who lives in Hyde Park and goes to the University of Chicago. "I think it stuck around for a lot of reasons," one of which is the "sex sells" nature of the myth, he said.

Some people belong to sects that split off from the Mormon church a long time ago and practice polygamy-like the family in "Sister Wives"-but the church does not consider those groups to be Latter-day Saints. Polygamists are also much less common than you might be led to believe by watching prime-time TV.

More central to most young Mormons' lives is family and faith. LDS members also hold purity to be very important and believe it's wrong to drink alcohol, coffee or tea; do drugs; have sex outside of marriage or dress immodestly.

Colin Zuber, 26, lives in Bucktown and grew up playing football in Georgia. The jocks there treated Zuber's Mormon beliefs with respect-even if they didn't agree with them.

"The overall reaction was, 'Wow, I could never do that.' I wasn't mercilessly made fun of," he said. "My experience in high school overall was very positive."

But not every Mormon's experiences are entirely without friction. Aundrea Frahm, 24, lives in Uptown and is getting her master's degree at the School of the Art Institute. She said though most people respect her religious beliefs, there are some occasions when she feels judged for being Mormon.

In a recent study trip to Prague, a classmate was shocked to discover that Frahm, a performance artist, was an LDS member.

"Then after that, he was like, 'So are you going to vote for Mitt Romney?' " she said. "To me, that was really offensive. It groups me into that stereotype [of] 'because you're Mormon, you're going to vote for him.' "

Things weren't the same between her and the classmate after the discussion, Frahm said.

"I felt like that person was a little more standoffish to me. His view changed, I think. That's just sad."

Living in Chicago, a big city that's primarily Catholic, hasn't been challenging for Savannah Jackson. She's 23, a teacher-in-training and a lifelong Mormon who is roommates with Frahm.

"I don't feel like I'm going against the grain" by being Mormon, Jackson said. "I feel like I get a lot of respect."

She also doesn't mind answering questions, even difficult ones. The LDS church had a policy, ending in 1978, of not allowing black men to enter its priesthood, and Jackson said she has struggled with explaining that to herself and to others.

"That's troubling that that policy ever began," she said, calling it "a mistake that was eventually fixed, and thank goodness."

Jackson, like many Latter-day Saints, attended Brigham Young University in Utah, the state that has the highest concentration of Mormons. But even outside the West, the media and non-Mormons are becoming more familiar with the religion, those whom RedEye spoke with said. Tobler commended coverage of Romney as the GOP presidential nominee for focusing on the issues more than on his religion. One exception has been the occasional mocking of the garments many Mormons wear under their clothing.

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