Governor Mitt Romney’s connection to New Hampshire is well-documented. He owns a house on Lake Winnipesaukee, which he visits regularly. And the Mormon meetinghouse in Wolfeboro serves as his second spiritual home. But what’s less understood by many outside Mormonism is what it’s like being a member of this religious minority in northern New England.
You can’t really say that Mormonism was born in New England…but its founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, was.
Back in 1805, Smith was born in a small house in rural South Royalton, Vermont. Today, his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints runs a 400 acre memorial site. Speakers in the woods pipe music from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. A 38-and-a-half-foot tall stone obelisk dominates the area—each foot represents a year of Smith’s life.
“Last year, we had 35,000 people come here to visit this site. And of those 35,000, about half of them were members of the church,” says retiree Elder Brian Schuck. He's doing his third stint as a Mormon missionary. Inside the visitor center, he shows off a framed print, depicting a seven-year-old Smith after the family had moved to Lebanon, New Hampshire. He had contracted typhoid fever, which eventually settled into a bone in his leg.
“We have here a portrait of Joseph’s surgery," Shuck explains. "It was an experimental procedure performed by the founder of Dartmouth Medical School.”
When the family left New England for western New York in 1816, Smith was still on crutches.
But despite these historical connections, Mormonism has never really taken deep root in the area. The Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies did a census in 2010. The group found only about 8,200 in New Hampshire. The state ranks 46th in the country for Mormon population.
And while the census found 21 Latter-Day Saints congregations in New Hampshire, a small meetinghouse in Wolfeboro has become the most famous. This is where the Romneys worship when they visit their summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee. But this time of year—the region’s off-season—there are fewer than 50 regulars. One of them is 76-year old Della Cote-Jordan. She converted from Protestantism in 1962.
“My neighbors, we all went to church in Alton," Cote-Jordan says. "And they joined the church and so I said, 'What is it about this Mormon religion that you all joined?' And they said, 'Well, come find out for yourself.' So I did. So we met in a factory in Winnisquam at that time, and it just, the first time I got there, like everything that they said, made sense.”
Today, the congregation has a proper church building. And, in efficient Mormon fashion, it’s designed so that it can easily be expanded to fit a growing congregation. There aren’t a lot of homegrown Mormons around here. Most of the members are converts. New convert Jason Charles Jeddrey says it hasn’t always been easy. “Oh, it definitely has its challenges. There’s always going to be opposition wherever you go.”
Jeddrey says his Catholic relatives are ok with his conversion. But it can sometimes be tough fitting back into New England culture.
“Oh, I’ve had people come up to me and ask if I wanted to go out for a drink after work, and I tell them I don’t drink, it’s against my religion, and they’re like, against your religion?! What do you mean, you can’t have one beer?" Jeddrey says. "But it’s not that we can’t have one beer. It’s that we don’t want to have one beer. It is against our religion to have any strong drink, alcohol, coffee, or tea.”
Those Mormon beliefs have become better known thanks to a number of things. Take Mitt Romney’s candidacy, the success of the Twilight books and movies, and the satirical Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon.”
The media calls this change “The Mormon Moment.”
But in some ways, this is a tricky time to be Mormon. The church is firm in its declaration that when it comes to politics, it’s neutral. There have been a number of prominent Mormon Republicans—like Mitt Romney. But Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is also a member of the church. And, here in New Hampshire, former Congressman Dick Swett and his wife Katrina are prominent Democrats. While the institutional church acknowledges this diversity among individual Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints, it’s very protective of its neutrality—and its members. I was allowed to interview New Hampshire Mormons only on the condition that I not ask political questions.
“Every political season, the President of the Church comes out with a letter reminding people that we’re neutral. And to engage in the political process,” New England Public Affairs Director Angela Hughes explains. She also sat in on the interviews. “You will not see any polling, any fliers, any candidates hosting any events in any of our venues.”
Even at Romney’s Wolfeboro church—where he’s better known as “Brother Romney,” there are no campaign signs. And no one’s talking politics in the halls. Utah State University Mormonism scholar Philip Barlow says this stance goes back a long way--near the turn of the 20th century, when Utah joined the United States.
“And as part of the accommodations of Mormons with the rest of the nation, they needed to give up their social practice of polygamy, for one thing, and for the second thing, they needed to more thoroughly join the democratic system," Barlow says.
Barlow says that meant, rather than “the church versus the world,” mentality inside the old theocratic system, Latter-Day Saints were encouraged to join both parties. At first, they were mostly Democrats, because of early Republican opposition to Mormonism. As time went on, the numbers evened-out. Until…
“With the Roe vs. Wade decision and with the advent of the cultural revolution and casual sex and casual drug use that was rising in the culture, they took a political turn towards the right," Barlow says. "And became much more Republican. And so the state of Utah is famously the reddest in the country.”
Barlow says that also explains the church’s vocal support of California’s Proposition 8, banning gay marriage. You can be a Democrat or a Republican and believe your traditional family values are threatened. So for church leadership, Prop 8 was a moral issue, not a political one.
And for most non-Mormon voters, Mitt Romney’s faith isn’t a political issue. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that of the voters surveyed who know Romney’s a Mormon, eight-out-of-ten were either comfortable with his faith, or just didn’t care.
Here in New Hampshire, Bedford Mormon Valerie Earnshaw says that “didn’t care” attitude has been her experience since moving from Texas.
“And maybe it’s kind of that, the New England closed-off thing or whatever, but most people, like, really don’t care," she says with a chuckle. "They’re happy to live their lives and let you live your life. And I’ve kind of found a surprising lack of interest in me being a Mormon.”
Back when he first ran for president, Mitt Romney famously addressed his Mormonism in a 2007 speech at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library. This time around, political pundits have noted he’s mum on the issue.
Perhaps because this time around, it’s not that much of an issue at all.