Vermont Mormons mum on Romney’s candidacy

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(Host) The presidential candidacy of Republican Mitt Romney has focused attention on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – and Vermont has a special place in church history.

Founder Joseph Smith and early leader Brigham Young were both born here.

But despite those connections, church membership in Vermont is relatively small – and local officials are reluctant to say much about Romney’s candidacy.

VPR’s Steve Zind has this report.

(Zind) For 13 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worldwide, the birthplace of Joseph Smith in the hills of Sharon is a special place. A tall granite spire stands near the site of the farmhouse where Smith was born.

(tour guide) "…in 1823, the angel Meroni appeared to him to instruct him and prepare him to, first of all receive the golden plates…"

(Zind) Church volunteers staff a visitor’s center, leading tours and discussing the life of Smith, whose family moved from here when he was only a few months old.

(Sessions) "We don’t worship Joseph Smith but the place where he was born here in Vermont is important to us."

(Zind) Michael Sessions is the President of the church in Vermont. Despite the unique Vermont connection, membership is relatively small. There are about 3,500 Mormons in the state.

Unlike larger denominations, the church here is an all volunteer organization. Lay clergy members lead each of the state’s 14 congregations.

Sessions devotes about 15 or 20 hours a week to heading the Vermont church: his day job is in the construction industry.

Mormonism is receiving a lot of national attention right now, but Sessions says there’s been little talk of Mitt Romney’s candidacy among Vermont members of the faith.

(Sessions) "I travel almost every Sunday to a different congregation and I haven’t had anybody come up to me and say anything about it."

(Zind) It’s against the law for churches to support specific candidates, and these days the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is making a special point to tell congregations to steer clear of politics.

Sessions says the church does encourage members to learn the candidates’ stand on issues – and that’s what he’s been doing.

(Sessions) "I’ve been following the candidacy of quite a few candidates to find out what their positions are and Mitt Romney’s just one. I certainly haven’t made up my mind yet."

(Zind) The church does take positions on matters it feels are important. It spoke out against civil unions when the legislature was debating the issue in 2000.

To most people, the public face of the church is the young missionaries who spread the word about their faith by knocking on doors. They spend 18 months living away from home. The church puts them up in apartments and provides them with cars to make their rounds, but each person also pays 400 dollars a month toward the cost of housing and food.

The young missionaries stick to a rigorous schedule that includes daily scripture study and hours of going from door to door.

It’s Michael Jensen’s job to oversee the missionaries in northern New England. Jensen says some of the people whose doors the missionaries knock on are asking about Mitt Romney.

He says people are also asking more questions about the church, although he’s hesitant to chalk that up to Romney’s candidacy.

(Jensen) "Politics aside, there is an increased awareness of the church."

(Zind) Jensen indicated that generally the church is open to having a reporter accompany the missionaries, but he declined a request to do so.

Jensen says the church wants to make sure the young people aren’t drawn into political conversations, especially in season where there’s a heightened concern in the church over mixing politics and faith.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.


AP Photo/Alden Pellet

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