BANGOR, Maine — Growing up in Centerville, Utah, Matt Erickson never imagined a fellow Mormon would be a candidate for president.
“I remember camping out in our backyard with my best friend in the fourth or fifth grade,” Erickson, a 48-year-old attorney who lives in Bucksport, said Wednesday. “We were talking about how we probably would be alive at the turn of the century in 2000. We were just looking forward to the future and thinking about the church.
“One of us said, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be neat if someday there would be a Mormon president?’ But, then, we thought that it just wouldn’t happen in our lifetimes.”
Mitt Romney may or may not be elected president. His successful bid to become the Republican nominee has put the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are called Mormons, in the spotlight.
Erickson, who had hoped four years ago that Romney would make it through the primary process, said that, so far, a Mormon candidate has not generated bad publicity for the church.
“If nothing else, it’s been an opportunity to answer questions about the faith and get down to the truth,” he said. “I think people find the truth more palatable than sensationalism.”
Erickson was one of 10,718 active Mormons in Maine as of Dec. 31, 2011. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been the fastest growing denomination in the nation over the past 10 years, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. Across the country, nearly 2 million members joined the denomination, bringing the total to 6.14 million adherents.
In Maine, membership has increased by 3,565 members since 1990.
Eight of every 1,000 people in Maine were Mormons in 2009. That makes the denomination one of the fastest growing in the state.
The church was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith in upstate New York after the angel Moroni told him where to find gold tablets containing God’s revelations, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Smith said he translated the record with divine help and published it as the Book of Mormon. It recounts the history of some tribes of Israel that migrated to North America centuries before Christ.
Latter-day Saints were persecuted, primarily for Smith’s belief in polygamy, and forced to move from New York to Illinois, where the founder was assassinated. Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, in 1846 led the rapidly growing flock to Salt Lake City, Utah, where it flourished.
In 1890, the church ended the practice of plural marriage. Six years later, Utah was admitted to the union as the 45th state.
The church organization is highly structured and emphasizes proselytizing.
All Mormon men raised in the faith are expected at age 19 to go on a two-year mission to share the church’s teachings. Members of the church are expected to tithe 10 percent of their incomes to maintain good standing in the denomination.
The national media has focused intermittently on Romney’s faith during the campaign. Time magazine last week hit the newsstands with a cover story on Romney’s religion titled “The Mormon Identity.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, like other denominations with tax-exempt status, does not endorse candidates. Leaders do, however, issue a letter each election year “reminding members that ‘principles compatible with the Gospel can be found in the platforms of various political parties,’” the Time article said.
Bangor area Mormons interviewed last Sunday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the corner of Grandview and Essex streets in Bangor disagreed on whether Romney’s candidacy was shining a spotlight on the faith.
Soubanh Phanthay of Bangor grew up a Buddhist in Lynn, Mass. His family immigrated to the United States from Thailand after fleeing Vietnam. When he was 15, Mormon missionaries visited his home. Phanthay converted before he was out of his teens.
“I think [Romney’s candidacy] has been a good thing,” he said last Sunday. “It has helped bring the faith into the public eye and helped them question the faith, which is great, because we have been always wanting to answer the questions people had about what we believe in and how we believe in it.”
Those questions also provide an opportunity for Mormons to dispel misconceptions about Latter-day Saints beliefs, Phanthay said. The two most frequently asked questions are: whether the church continues to endorse polygamy and whether Mormons believe in Jesus Christ.
The answers are “no” and “yes,” he said.
Bill Meier of Brewer disagreed that the church has been in a media spotlight because of the presidential campaign.
“I’m not at all sure there is a focus on Romney’s religion with the exception of a few remarks that made their way into the media early in the campaign,” he said. “I haven’t seen it being made an issue of. In terms of the church, it’s probably been fairly neutral so far.”
University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer said Wednesday that he was not surprised the Latter-day Saints church had not garnered much attention.
“In Maine, the reality is that religious identity has tended to be less important than it is nationally in elections,” he said. “It can be very important in states like Utah and Arkansas. Even in Florida, evangelical Christians and Jews are important voting blocks.”
Maine is the least religious state in the nation, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives.
“There are so few Mormons in the state — less than 1 percent of the population — that it’s not expected to impact the election even if you assume 90 percent of Maine’s Mormons are going to vote for Romney,” Brewer said. “If the race gets particularly close in the 2nd Congressional District, it might make a difference there.”
Polls have shown President Barack Obama consistently ahead of Romney in Maine, but his lead is smaller in northern Maine than in the southern part of the state.
Phanthay said people should not assume because church members share the same faith that they share the same political views.
“I’ve found that the church does not have one political view, at least not in Bangor, Maine,” he continued. “There are members with different views, but they can actually still coexist in the same church and love and share and serve each other regardless of their political beliefs.”