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Mormons see mainstream acceptance ahead for church

Mormons and white evangelicals share an intense commitment to family life, prayer, the Bible and conservative politics, including support for the Republican Party and smaller government, according to a new study released Thursday. But the two groups strongly hold divergent religious beliefs, and half of Mormons surveyed felt hostility from evangelical Christians.

The survey of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was published by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, fights to keep his GOP front-runner status. The campaign moves next to the Jan. 21 primary in South Carolina, where evangelical voters are key.

Conservative Christians, including Protestants and Roman Catholics, generally do not consider Mormons to be Christian, but it is unclear what role those objections will play in South Carolina vote and beyond. Surveys have found that Republicans with the strongest objections to Mormonism also are among the fiercest opponents to President Barack Obama, and would back a Mormon in the general election.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is Mormon, also is seeking the Republican nomination.

In the Pew poll released Thursday, nearly half of Mormons said church members face significant discrimination in the United States and nearly two-thirds said other Americans do not consider the religion part of the mainstream. LDS church leaders have long complained that critics take obscure or outdated Mormon teachings and describe them as core doctrine. The church cast aside the teaching of polygamy in 1890, and in 1978, abolished the barrier that kept those of African descent from full participation in the church. In the latest Pew survey, only 2 percent of Mormons said polygamy is morally acceptable.

Despite the prejudice Mormons feel, a majority expressed optimism about their future. More than 60 percent believe Americans are moving toward acceptance of Mormonism and more than half believe the country is ready to accept a Latter-day Saint as president. An overwhelming majority of Mormon voters hold favorable views of Romney, the poll found.

In the 2012 race, Romney has not directly addressed theological differences between his faith and historic Christianity, as he did in his first bid for the nomination, with a 2007 faith-and-values speech in Texas, Instead, his campaign has been emphasizing values that Mormons and conservative Christians share.

About 77 percent of Mormons in the survey identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, and most hold much stronger conservative views than the general public. Three-quarters support a smaller government that provides fewer services. The same percentage say having an abortion is morally wrong. Two-thirds believe homosexuality should be discouraged.

Rank-and-file Mormons reflect the strong emphasis throughout the LDS church on family. Asked their life priorities, a large majority of respondents listed being a good parent and having a successful marriage. Latter-day Saints also have a high level of religious observance that surpasses even the most devout American Christians. Three-quarters of Mormons said they attended religious services weekly or more, compared to 64 percent of white evangelicals and 42 percent of white Catholics. Two-thirds of Mormons say they pray several times a day, compared to half of evangelicals and about one-third of Catholics.

Since 1994, a group of evangelical and Mormon scholars who have been meeting to discuss theology, focusing on their shared beliefs. All but 2 percent of Mormons in the Pew survey said they believe that Jesus was resurrected. Nearly all believe the Bible is the word of God and describe themselves Christian or "Christ-centered."

However, Mormons just as strongly hold beliefs that traditional Christians consider heretical. All but 6 percent of Mormons believe that God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate, physical beings, a rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity, in which God, the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit coexist and share one substance.

Joseph Smith became Mormonism's founding prophet after he said he experienced visions during the late 1820s. He said he was told not to join any church because they all held wrong beliefs. An angel, he said, then directed him to gold plates that had been buried in the ground in upstate New York, which Smith then translated as the Book of Mormon. Nearly all Mormons in the survey said they believe the Book of Mormon was written by ancient prophets and that the president of the LDS church is a prophet of God.

The Pew Forum estimates that Mormons comprise less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, are overwhelming white and in the West. Nearly six in 10 Mormons said that most or all of their close friends are also Mormon. The LDS church has been running a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign featuring the personal stories of Mormons hoping to educate the public.

The poll of 1,019 Mormons was conducted Oct. 25 through Nov. 16 of last year and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

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Online:

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: http://www.pewforum.org/

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Rachel Zoll is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/rzollAP

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