Religion creeps back in

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By Sherry Robinson

As a kid, I remember my parents discussing whether they could vote for a Roman Catholic, John F. Kennedy. It was a hot topic at the time. They liked Kennedy and did vote for him. After that the issue of a candidate’s religion seemed to wane, at our dinner table and nationally.
In this campaign, some have had to think about whether they could vote for a Mormon, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. It appeared to be a lesser issue, compared to the front-page issues.
Then a friend forwarded the photograph of a crusader demanding that a large number of groups “repent and believe in Jesus.” Here’s a portion of the list: “homos, druggies, gangsters, feminists, Mormons, Buddhists, Catholics, wife beaters, New Agers, Democrats, environmentalists, racists, government recipients, Jehovah’s Witnesses, perverts, loud mouth women, liberals and sports nuts.”
My, my. So, in some circles it’s still a hot topic.
Rob Nikolewski, of Capitol Report New Mexico, recently pilloried a couple of national magazines for religious bigotry in their coverage of Romney, and rightly so. To my knowledge, we haven’t seen anything similar in New Mexico. We’re pretty tolerant here, but part of the story is our history.
Members of the LDS church were early New Mexico pioneers here, as I was reminded recently, when I participated in an event of the Cibola County Historical Society. The group honored 18 “Women of Distinction,” both contemporary and historical figures who contributed to life in the area. Among them were a number of Mormon matriarchs.
Mormons settled in El Morro Valley in 1874 and at Bluewater in 1889. “One of the most remarkable and unheralded subchapters of New Mexico history is that of the Mormon settlement here,” I wrote in my first book, El Malpais, Mt. Taylor and the Zuni Mountains.
They settled near Zuni Pueblo communities, Spanish villages and Navajos and got on with everyone. “The newcomers, with their antlike discipline, organization, and work ethic, were a typical Mormon colony. While the taming of the West may have been otherwise serendipitous, the Saints, as they called themselves, were nothing if not deliberate.”
For the book, I was among the 18 honorees and found myself sitting between descendents of the very Mormon families I wrote about. Their stories of courage in the face of appalling hardship are inspiring. Somehow these women also found strength and time to embrace their communities, and Ramah and Bluewater are the better for it.
As a young reporter in Grants, I wrote about a community work day at an LDS church-owned field. Everybody was expected to show up and lean into their shovels. I learned the church owns farms and food processors, that Mormons stockpile food against hard times, and that they tithe generously. If people lose jobs, the church will support them, but they’re expected to get another job. As a single mom with no support system, I found this admirable.
It is, in fact, the LDS approach to economic life that critics find most threatening. Historic persecution and near starvation galvanized a group that looks out for its own, prepares for downturns with everything from gold coins to canned goods, looks askance at debt, and abhors government handouts.
Except for the gold, we could be describing my mother and her sisters, who grew up poor in the Depression.
LDS values also line up neatly with conservative politics. What gives critics heartburn is not so much religion as this large organization, which has amassed power and wealth – complaints, oddly enough, that used to be leveled at Catholics and Jews.
Our discussions should focus on the candidate, not his religion, but this campaign may also enlighten us about a group that’s representative of our diversity in New Mexico.