Morgan and Lindsey Martin of Cartersville want to make it clear: They are not in a cult.
Like GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, they are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And, like Romney, who is a former governor of Massachusetts, they are facing questions about their beliefs after a prominent pastor called Mormonism a cult.
Suddenly, their beliefs are part of the national political conversation. Georgia Mormons say they’re facing the same questions that some have fielded for most of their lives in a region where their numbers are relatively small: What do you believe? Are you in a cult? Are you really a Christian? Some still ask about polygamy, a practice that was banned in 1890.
A recent poll reported that an overwhelming number of Protestant pastors don’t believe Mormons are Christians.
“The controversy is nothing new or shocking to us,” said Morgan, 23, holding hands with his wife. “Knowing that Mitt Romney was running, it [Mormonism] was bound to come up.”
And there’s another Mormon in the race for president — former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
Recalling some of the questions she’s been asked in the past, Lindsey, 24, rolled her eyes.
“Someone,” she said, “once asked me if we worshiped lizards.”
Earlier this month, the Rev. Robert Jeffress of Dallas took a shot at Romney. The pastor, who heads the 10,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas and is a supporter of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is also seeking the Republican presidential nomination, called Mormonism a cult.
Jeffress is not alone in his belief. LifeWay Research, an education subsidiary of the Southern Baptist Convention, conducted the poll that concluded 75 percent of pastors don’t think Mormons are Christians.
Also, the North American Mission Board, which provides missionary services and other support to Southern Baptist churches across North America, lists the religion as a cult.
The Mormon faith is based on both the Bible and revelations Joseph Smith said he got from heavenly messengers in the 1820s. Among its articles of faith is the belief that a New Jerusalem will be established in the United States.
Other religions in America have always viewed Mormonism with skepticism, said Sandy Martin, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Georgia.
In the 1800s, he said, Mormons often faced hostility from other religions. An angry mob, Martin noted, killed Smith. The Mormons were so unpopular in some parts of the country that Mormon leader Brigham Young led his followers into the wilderness to escape persecution. The site where he established his church is now called Salt Lake City, the international headquarters of Mormonism.
Mormons, said Martin, “blend in pretty well” in the United States. People respect their devotion to family and the high moral standards the church expects of its members, he said. “But there’s still the idea that Mormonism is a heretical religion.”
The heart of Mormonism in Georgia is located at the Temple — its full name is Atlanta Georgia Temple — in Sandy Springs. The building is Mormon headquarters for a district that includes 13 Georgia cities, Dothan, Ala., and Chattanooga. More than 78,000 people in Georgia are Mormons.
It is an impressive building, multi-storied and gleaming white, with a steeple topped by a golden statue of the angel Moroni. According to Mormon belief, Moroni frequently visited Smith.
The building is so handsome that Mark and Barbara Beasley and their three children traveled 100 miles last week to spend time amid its splendor. The Beasleys, who live near the Tennessee border in Gordon County, are lifelong Mormons. For years, they said, they’ve answered questions about what they believe.
Mark, 30 and an electrician, said he’s heard the “cult” accusation before, “but it’s never been said seriously to me.”
When she heard the latest “cult” claim, Barbara, 32, laughed.
“My roommate in college?” she asked. “She was in a cult — a sorority.”
Mormons do get the occasional bone-headed question, said Dr. Harold Carlson, an Atlanta cardiologist who worships in Sandy Springs.
“I once had someone ask me if Mormons were allowed to dance,” said Carlson, 58, who said he’s corrected misconceptions about his beliefs for years. “I guess it’s a good time for the ad campaign.”
A national billboard and TV campaign shows Mormons talking about their lives, values and faith — regular people with everyday concerns. A website, mormon.org, also features more than 30,000 profiles submitted by Mormons from around the world.
The campaign is designed to give Mormonism a face and show how diverse its followers are, said David Winters of Norcross, an adviser to 10 area bishops.
“We’re not all cut from the same cloth,” said Winters, 46, a senior accountant at Coca-Cola.
Years ago, he recalled, a colleague told him he was going to hell for his beliefs. As Jesus advised, Winters said, he turned the other cheek.
“We were friends before that,” he said, “and we were friends afterward.”
Jermaine Sullivan became a Mormon when he was 18. “Some missionaries knocked at my door,” he said. He studied the tenets of Mormonism and eventually became a missionary himself, spending two years in Brazil.
Now 32, Sullivan is a bishop at a church on Lee Street in southwest Atlanta. Like other bishops, he is a volunteer; he’s not paid for his church work.
Last Wednesday, he unlocked the door the church and waited for the visitors he knew would come for youth night, prayer services and Scripture reading. He didn’t wait long. His wife, Kembe, and their three children showed up first. Next came two men who took chairs and awaited a moment to speak with Sullivan.
Men and women, children and teens. The folks in his church, said Sullivan, are no different than people gathering at any church for Wednesday night services.
“We all believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ,” said Sullivan. “But people don’t know about us.”
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