Mormon Missionaries Balance Politics, Proselytizing
If campaigning for Republican presidential candidates in New Hampshire sounds like hard work, try going door to door on primary weekend for Jesus.
That's what Elder Taylor Bayles is doing in Exeter, N.H. "Elder" is a religious title the Mormon Church gives this missionary even though he's just 20 years old. His canvassing partner is Elder Kyle Hodson, who's 21. The two blond, conservatively dressed young men acknowledge that they tend to attract attention when they go door to door. "Generally, walking around New Hampshire in a suit and tie with a name tag makes you in the spotlight," said Bayles.
They keep a rigorous schedule, sometimes from 10 in the morning to 9 at night, talking to people about the Mormon faith. But in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, there's something else people want to talk to them about: which candidate they support.
"It's definitely a topic of conversation that comes up quite a bit," said Hodson. "Two people within just a couple minutes of each other asked us the exact same question. They just yelled at us, 'Huntsman or Romney?' "
It's an obvious question to ask two Mormons, but the missionaries have no response. Despite the fact that presidential candidates Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney are both active Mormons, the church won't endorse a candidate.
"The church has a longstanding policy of neutrality as far as candidates and all that, so as representatives, we mimic that neutrality," said Bayles. "But we are people. We have opinions. We just choose not to voice them during these two years that we serve."
But a blue bumper sticker pasted on the back of Hodson's day planner seemed to say otherwise.
Hodson explained that the Mitt Romney sticker was only ornamental. "It's really not much of a preference," he said. "It's just more for fun." Bayles agreed that it's more an endorsement of stickers than the candidates they represent. "I'm looking for a Ron Paul sticker, a Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry ... Whoever can give me a sticker, that's what I'm looking for," he laughed.
So a Romney sticker might just be decorative this year. But when Hodson does become politically active, he said he won't necessarily vote his faith: "I wouldn't consider myself smart if I chose to vote for a member of the church just because I'm a member."
For now, though, they're in the political dark. During their mission, they won't access newspapers or TV, and they keep their Internet to 30 minutes a week, and then only to one website: Mormon.org.
On a computer in the Exeter Public Library, Bayles opens the church page and scrolls over a checkerboard of Mormon faces. "The guy we're looking at now is an aboriginal guy from Australia, and he works for a health campaign. There's an opera singer, a mathematician, high school student, artist, cancer survivor."
Mormon.org is the online host of the multimillion-dollar "I'm a Mormon" campaign to show the diversity of the church. And Bayles knows the story behind each face, as he and Hodson spend 30 minutes each Saturday reading the profiles.
The faith had a different face a generation ago, when Huntsman and Romney were just boys carrying out their own missionary rites of passage.
Huntsman served his mission in Taiwan; and Mitt Romney, in Paris.
Now those former missionaries are going door to door trying to persuade New Hampshire residents to believe in them as presidential candidates. So who has the harder job?
Bayles took a moment to answer. "I'd say it's probably harder for us to do our work than it would be for a campaigner."
Hodson added: "When we go to talk to people about Jesus Christ, we not only help them develop a faith in Christ but help them act on it. And that usually involves making some changes in their lives. And a lot of times those changes can be hard."
Probably harder than picking a presidential candidate.
Ike Sriskandarajah is a reporter for TurnStyleNews.com. This story was produced by the Youth Radio Election Desk.
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