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Mormon teens wowed, energized by Romney

| Thursday, July 26, 2012, 12:20 a.m.
Tribune-Review
Maggie Gunn, 17, of Franklin Park plays the cello in the orchestra during a choir practice at Robert Morris University for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 2012 Youth Conference, which begins Wednesday and runs through Saturday. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review

By election day, Nicole Best will be old enough to vote for Republican Mitt Romney.

“I'm very proud of him. I think he is a quality man,” Best, 17, of Kirtland, Ohio, said of the former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate, who is a longtime Mormon lay leader.

Though Kirtland's suburban Cleveland hometown became headquarters for the Latter Day Saints Movement from 1831 to 1838 and site of the country's first Mormon temple, most Mormons moved much further west than northeast Ohio.

One of just 10 Mormons in her high school, Best says she always felt outnumbered — perhaps as did Romney, who spent his childhood in Michigan and his adult life in Massachusetts, states with small Mormon populations.

Her affinity for Romney and hope for demystification of her faith, she says, might resemble the enthusiasm that many Roman Catholics had for John Kennedy in 1960, the nation's only Catholic president.

Best is among more than 800 teenagers from Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia attending The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 2012 Youth Conference, which started Wednesday at Robert Morris University in Moon and runs through Saturday.

The size of the conference impressed most of the teenagers upon arrival.

According to the church's website, the tri-state — consisting of Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio and Northern West Virginia — is home to 6,000 Mormons, making this gathering almost unprecedented for the region.

“I have never seen this many people, this many LDS people in the same place. It's kind of great,” said Allison Linley, 15, of Prosperity in Washington County.

Caroline Bushman, 16, of Mt. Lebanon is one of only four Mormons at Mt. Lebanon High School.

“Our faith is such a big part of our lives. Here, I feel like I know people before I have even met them,” said Bushman, whose father, Karl Bushman, knew Romney in Boston.

The gathering, Bushman said, offers her an opportunity to meet people with same standards of dress and behavior. The church prohibits members from smoking, drinking alcohol and wearing gaudy or revealing clothing.

Most attendees were reticent about politics.

“LDS members are well-trained to avoid those questions. They really work hard not look like they are endorsing candidates. But the country is vetting Mormonism, and it is vetting Mitt Romney,” said Max Perry Mueller, a scholar of Mormonism and doctoral candidate at Harvard University who is associate editor of Religion & Politics, a journal published at Washington University in St. Louis.

Mormons faced more persecution than any other religious group in U.S. history, particularly in the 19th century, Mueller said. To an extent, he said, Romney faces some of the same fears that people expressed about Catholics when Kennedy ran for the White House a half-century ago.

“Some people are threatened by Romney as a believer. Some people call Mormonism a cult,” Mueller said.

Mormons are acutely aware of how others perceive them. A survey this year by Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life found 68 percent of Mormons said they are not viewed as “mainstream” by society.

The survey indicated that three-quarters of Mormons lean toward the Republican Party, and two-thirds consider themselves conservative — far higher than the national average of 37 percent. Yet Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a Democrat, is the country's highest-ranking elected Mormon.

A Gallup poll in June found that only 34 percent of Americans correctly say President Obama is a Christian; 44 percent say they don't know his religion; and 11 percent say he is a Muslim. Obama attended Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or rwills@tribweb.com.

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