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For the love of Mormons

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / October 7, 2011

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This week the Mormon church unleashed yet another salvo in its ongoing charm offensive, a 13-city, multimedia campaign titled “I’m a Mormon.’’ Combining an elaborate Internet push with billboard and television advertising, the outreach is an ambitious expansion of a nine-city trial program launched last year.

The PR blitz capitalizes on what some call “the Mormon moment,’’ the long-delayed coming out party for the religion founded by Vermonter Joseph Smith in 1830. Mormons are suddenly center stage in the popular consciousness: Political figures such as Jon Huntsman, Glenn Beck, Harry Reid, and Mitt Romney are hard to avoid. The HBO series about a Mormon polygamist, “Big Love,’’ ended a successful five-season run this year. “The Book of Mormon,’’ a satirical musical written by “South Park’’ creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is a standing-room-only hit on Broadway.

The campaign supposedly aims to clear up misconceptions about the fast-growing and aggressively proselytizing Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormons are formally known. Church headquarters in Salt Lake City is convinced that many Americans don’t think Mormons are Christians, which they are. I think - and polling backs me up on this - that many Americans mistakenly believe that mainstream Mormons still practice polygamy. But that’s not a focus of the “I’m a Mormon’’ campaign.

“We carry a sort of shame and some ambivalence about polygamy,’’ says Joanna Brooks, a Mormon columnist for the website “We have a lot of mixed feelings about polygamy. It is still a painful issue.’’

If I were making the case for the Mormons, I would say: Know them by their enemies, know them by their friends. Their original enemies were the racist bigots of the Missouri frontier, pro-slavery mobocrats who fed the ranks of Jesse James’s terrorist gang after the Civil War. (For context, my frenemy T.J. Stiles’s biography of James is must reading.) Insular and industrious, the Mormons inspired envy and hatred from their frontier neighbors.

Although the church has been justifiably criticized for excluding African-Americans from its ranks until 1978, some pre-Civil War Mormons welcomed free blacks and Native Americans into their fold, for a while. In Missouri, they quickly learned that broad-minded instincts were hazardous to their health, and adjusted their doctrine accordingly.

The Mormons were very nearly the victims of an American holocaust, after Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs signed the notorious Mormon Extermination Order of 1838. Three days later, marauders massacred 17 Mormons trapped inside a mill building.

Mormons fight back. Someone - probably the legendary Mormon mountain man Porter Rockwell - emptied his pepperpot derringer into the back of Governor Boggs’s head, in an assassination attempt gone awry. The Mormons judiciously fled Missouri, and many years later found their American homeland alongside the Great Salt Lake.

Who are their friends? I was surprised to learn that novelist and historian Wallace Stegner was a fervent Mormon booster. Stegner wrote two affectionate books about the Saints, primarily inspired by the friendship he experienced as a non-Mormon growing up in Salt Lake City. I’ve read “The Gathering of Zion,’’ his book about the Mormon Trek to Utah, and it’s as good as his much better known biography of John Wesley Powell, “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian.’’ Stegner, who spent a quarter-century teaching at Stanford University, donated his papers to the University of Utah, which proudly calls him “one of ours.’’

You know who else speaks well of the Mormons? Stone, co-writer of “The Book of Mormon.’’ Stone and Parker have mocked Islamic fundamentalism and Scientology in their “South Park’’ cartoons, and have been threatened with lawsuits and worse. Speaking to The New York Times, Stone noted that the Saints have shrugged off the occasionally bitter depiction of their beliefs in his musical. He described “a very big-hearted, perfect First Amendment-loving reaction. Prop 8 aside, I wish more religions acted like the Mormon Church.’’

“Prop 8’’ refers to the Mormons’ financial support for a California ballot initiative eliminating same-sex marriage.

Like many other strains of Christianity, the Mormons are not exactly welcoming to gays. If Romney or Huntsman wins the Republican presidential nomination, you’ll hear more about the Saints’ controversial beliefs. In 2008, there was a “did you know?’’ whisper campaign deriding the Mormons’ “temple garments’’ underclothing.

Do the Mormons have odd beliefs? You bet they do. Does my own creed - a hybrid stew of mainline Episcopalianism, Methodism, and Congregationalism - espouse some outlandish notions? Yup. It comes with the territory.

I’ve voted for a Mormon, and I may do so again. Let them take over the world, I say. They couldn’t do any worse than the stiffs who are in charge now.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is