Mitt Romney run spotlights faith, say LI Mormons

Frank and Thea Mansuetto are among the approximately Frank and Thea Mansuetto are among the approximately 4,600 Mormons who call Long Island home. (Aug. 7, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

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Thea Mansuetto was nervous when Mitt Romney became the Republican front-runner and a spotlight fell on the religion both share -- Mormonism. She feared it would heighten criticism of a faith she thinks many people misunderstand.

But now the Fort Salonga resident is embracing the attention as an opportunity to dispel some misconceptions about her religion.

"I think it is becoming more of a positive thing for me than a negative because I feel there's so much misinformation out in the world," Mansuetto, 59, said. "To a lot of people, we are just odd. This gives us a chance to clarify who we are, that we're just your neighbors, people who do normal things."

Long Island is home to about 4,600 Mormons, and many say they welcome the national focus on the religion they share with Romney.

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Support not a given

But in the state where Mormonism was born in 1830 before its founders moved West a year later, local church members on Long Island are not uniformly behind Romney. Some may support President Barack Obama.

"I don't feel like it's automatic for me," said Mark Hardman, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Long Island, about voting for Romney. He voted for Obama in 2008, and while he is leaning slightly toward Romney now, he still considers Obama a man with a "good and moral family."

Mansuetto says she is undecided, too. Her husband, Frank, 63, says he is behind Romney, but not because he is a Mormon. As a health insurance broker, he says Obama's health care reform may put him out of business.

"If the roles were reversed, I would be against Mitt Romney if he was for health reform and eliminating me from the equation," Frank Mansuetto said. "I could lose all my income."

The divided opinions among Mormons over the presidential contest are playing out in a region where the religion has deep roots. Joseph Smith founded Mormonism in 1830 in the upstate community of Palmyra. The first Mormon service on Long Island was celebrated in 1837 in Oceanside.

Since then, Mormons have remained a steady presence on the Island, home to one of the oldest Mormon communities in the world, said Thea Mansuetto, who has researched the religion's local history.

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Widespread presence

Mormon "units" or congregations are spread throughout the Island in places such as Bay Shore, Freeport and Huntington Station, Hardman said. A growing number are bilingual units where English and Spanish are spoken. Mormonism's Island headquarters is in Plainview, where the Mormon pavilion from the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing, Queens, serves as a remodeled church.

In the past three years, the Mormon church on Long Island has added about 300 members, Hardman said. There are about 6 million Mormons -- equal to the number of Jews in the United States, said Matthew Bowman, author of "The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith."

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Mormons nationwide are predominantly Republican, though as many as one-third are liberals, Democrats or libertarians, Bowman said. Prominent Democratic Mormons include Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the U.S. Senate majority leader.

Bowman said that while some Mormons say they are glad the spotlight is now focused on their religious beliefs, others are not because it includes criticisms of some aspects of their faith, including the practice of polygamy (which ended in 1890) and the prohibition of African-American priests (which ended in 1978).

Breaking barriers

Lee Krueger, 52, a Mormon and a construction worker from Calverton, said he is happy Mormons are getting more attention because "it breaks down barriers and misunderstandings and lets the church shake off some of the misconceptions people have about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints."

Krueger, a registered Republican, said he is still undecided about the presidential race. He voted for Obama in 2008.

"I'm excited about the idea of someone who is not necessarily going to represent the [Mormon] church in office, but has the same moral standards that we hold, especially in light of past presidential performances on moral issues and moral behavior," Krueger said.

He said he gives Obama "high marks" in that area, too, and that he is "a little disillusioned with the Republican Party and their obstructionism with getting things done in Washington."

Krueger's wife, Raven, said she sees Romney's candidacy as a mixed blessing for Mormons. "It makes me happy for the country because if he is a Mormon in good standing then I know he is going to try his best to be an honest person," she said. "My hesitation is that I worry that people will judge our church by his actions. Anything can happen. All that power can make anybody corrupt," though she does not expect that to happen to Romney.

Raven Krueger, 45, said that she, too, has not decided whom she will vote for.

'Negative feelings'

Luis Rivas, 46, a Mormon from Hauppauge, said he has no doubts -- Romney is his man. "I am very happy with him," said Rivas, an electrician who recently changed his voter registration to Republican from Democrat.

Mormons "are people who have integrity and who are trying to do their best," Rivas said. "They're trying to be honorable, pursue what they think is right, while trying to help others along the way. Anyone who has those qualities will be great" as president.

Rivas said it has not always been easy being a Mormon. "There are a lot of negative feelings toward the Church of Latter Days Saints. We do feel that."

But Romney's candidacy is an opportunity to help fight what he called the "stigmatization" of Mormons. "We have a chance to discuss it with them," he said. "It opens up a dialogue with a lot of people."

At a glance

HISTORY

Founded in 1830 in upstate community of Palmyra by Joseph Smith. First services conducted on Long Island in 1837 in Oceanside.

HEADQUARTERS

Long Island headquarters is in Plainview. National headquarters based in Salt Lake City.

TEMPLES

A Mormon temple was erected in Manhattan 10 years ago across the street from Lincoln Center. There are just 120 Mormon temples around the world.

CHURCH STRUCTURE

Divided into "stakes," which are similar to dioceses in the Roman Catholic Church. Each stake is divided into "units," similar to parishes. Overseen by a prophet and 12 apostles based in Salt Lake City. Each stake and unit has its own president and two counselors.

4,600

Number on LI

6 million

Number nationwide Source: Mark Hardman, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Long Island, and Matthew Bowman, author of "The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith"

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