Melissa Smith

Spirit of Austin

Melissa Smith, English PhD student, and Carlos Tovias, senior mechanical engineer, teach each other dance moves at the Church of Latter Day Saints in Friday afternoon. Students were encouraged to study or play games after Friday lunches.

Photo Credit: Julia Bunch | Daily Texan Staff

In his campaign for president, Mitt Romney has come under scrutiny for his religion, Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For UT Mormons, Romney’s running is an opportunity for others to learn more about their religion.

About 300 18- to 30-year-olds attend classes at the Institute of Religion, a house of study for LDS Church members, said Institute Director Eric Johnson. The institute also houses Sunday services for single adults in that age range. Many participants are UT students, Johnson said.

“Politics and the media, they’re going to do what they’re going to do,” he said. “Members of the church are being given more opportunities to say ‘this is who we are and this is what we’ve been, and it points to the savior Jesus Christ.’”

The church is nonpartisan, and a lot of LDS Church members probably won’t vote for Romney, said health promotion senior Nick Elizondo. He attends classes at the institute but goes to another church service for families with his wife. The LDS Church divides its congregations by age and geography.

“The church doesn’t encourage party affiliation, but it does encourage us to participate in the voting process,” Elizondo said. “Romney’s campaign is a great opportunity for people to learn about the church, but Romney is just a member like any of us.”

Romney’s political campaign has corresponded with the arrival of the “I Am A Mormon” ad campaign in Austin last month. The videos feature people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives sharing their experience with the faith and encourage viewers to go to mormon.org for more information. English doctoral student Melissa Smith said she learns about her own faith by watching the videos by others.

For example, Smith said she was surprised to see a video by The Killers lead singer Brandon Flowers because his song lyrics sometimes diverge from Mormon values. But everyone lives their faith differently, she said.

“I was reading a profile of someone from a different culture, and the person was talking about a particular principle, and I learned more about that principle and why we live it than I had understood ever,” Smith said. “I learned what it was like to live the Gospel from a different cultural perspective.”

Both the Romney presidential run and the I Am a Mormon campaign are giving LDS Church members the chance to share their faith, students said. For many, that simply means clarifying that the LDS Church is a Christian church and not a cult, as one Dallas Baptist pastor pronounced with regard to Romney.

Brian Seigfried and Lucas Brook are elders at UT. Many LDS men go on two-year missions to evangelize in their late teens and early 20s. They agreed that Austin feels like home and get positive reception from those they speak to — whether in formal meetings or in random encounters around campus.

“I love the ad campaign, it clears up a lot of misconceptions that people have about this church,” Brook said. “It helps when we’re out talking to people, they see us and say ‘oh, these are the Mormons.’”

Evangelizing serves an important function in the church, since many members come to LDS later in life, they said. For example, Elizondo said he joined the church when he was 18 after growing up Presbyterian. The classes at the Institute helped him understand Biblical scripture in a new way, he said, and he finds spiritual growth in reading the Book of Mormon as well.

“With a real study of the scriptures, I was very much drawn to the church, and I prayed to know if the church was the church that the Lord would have me join,” Elizondo said. “I felt true conviction in my heart that that is what I needed to do.”

As controversy and growing awareness of the church continue, students at the Institute said they’ll continue to try to live out their faith by being kind to others and following Jesus’ message.

Printed on November 7, 2011: Mormon religion put in national spotlight because of Romney's presidential candidacy