Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have brought Mormons into the spotlight, and other Americans may be a bit intimidated at what they see. Judging from these guys and their families, you might conclude that all Mormons are wealthy, upstanding, accomplished, worldly and very nice-looking.
In fact, they're enough to make you wonder why we put up with non-Mormon politicians—who often bring with them boorish behavior, sexual improprieties, financial misdeeds, heavy drinking, foul language and messy families. Not to mention that they are rarely as photogenic as the Huntsmans and the Romneys.
To many Americans, this campaign has been an introduction to a faith that most of them know little about. To me, it's been a trip down memory lane. You see, in my younger days, I almost became a Mormon.
When I was just out of high school, I was smitten with a girl. She was smart, engaging and, yes, easy on the eyes, and she was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). I knew nothing about it, but I was willing to learn.
Shortly before going off to college, I spent a weekend with her handsome, high-achieving family at their house in Lubbock, Texas. It was a revelation. I learned that Mormons abstain from alcohol, tobacco, and coffee, donate 10 percent of their earnings to the church, fast one day a month, place a high priority on family, and center their lives on their religious community.
I also found that they are extremely welcoming to outsiders. This is partly because Mormons put great importance on being nice. It's also because they are keen on making converts.
Very keen. Within days of arriving on my new college campus, on the other side of the country, I got a visit from some LDS missionaries—two earnest young men who persuaded me to begin weekly private classes to learn about their creed.
They gave me a copy of The Book of Mormon and I read some of it. I went to Sunday school and church each week, and I hung out with college classmates who were LDS.
After a few weeks, my missionaries decided it was time to schedule my baptism. Taken aback, I told them I wasn't quite ready. And after much agonizing, I decided I was never going to be ready—even though it meant a certain fetching female was going to be permanently off-limits.
Why did I walk away? Some of the stories in The Book of Mormon were too hard to believe. I found the church's orthodoxy intellectually stifling. I felt I didn't know enough about my own Presbyterian faith to abandon it. I lacked the certitude for such a big step.
Mormons regard themselves as Christians, and I don't disagree. But theirs is a drastically different type of Christianity. Becoming a Mormon is not like becoming a Methodist.
If I had joined, my life might have been very different. Or maybe not. The church is proud of being one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, a credit to its tireless missionary efforts. Only later did I find out that a lot of people who convert eventually fall away.
Once I made my choice, I noticed that all my new Mormon friends were suddenly scarce. But I was glad for the experience. It gave me a view of another way of life that most people don't get. It left me feeling I had a rudimentary understanding of Latter-day Saints.
I also got one joke out of it. It seems the pope is meeting with his cardinals in the Vatican when he's called out to take a phone call. He returns to announce, "I have good news and bad news. The good news is that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has come again to establish his kingdom on earth." The bad news? "He was calling from Salt Lake City."
And that girl? We parted on amicable but sorrowful terms, and I haven't seen her since. Twenty years later, she had a layover at O'Hare and phoned to say hello. We spent a pleasant 15 minutes catching up and promising to get together with our spouses and kids sometime.