The book on Mormons

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John and Lorraine Thiele talk during a flight in their plane Friday during a short excursion over Lake Coeur d'Alene. The couple, who are both pilots, often fly together on family outings and short trips throughout the region.

Sure, Mitt Romney didn't claim the big prize, Aaron Nicholes acknowledges.

But his presidential nomination still had a nice bonus.

It gave a swell boost for Mormonism.

"I think it was news that a Mormon was nominated for the presidential campaign," said Nicholes, president of the Coeur d'Alene stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, comprised of several congregations.

Talk about the best possible PR - having the face of a successful, affable, not-too-spiritually-extreme Mormon splayed across international TV and publications. The first Mormon presidential candidate on a major-party ticket, Romney showed that a member of his church could be devout without being alienating, relatable without forcing his doctrine.

A Pew Research Center poll showed only 15 percent of Republicans were concerned about the then-presidential candidate's religion.

Numbers don't lie - his Mormonism was practically a non-issue.

"It kind of feels like he broke a ceiling that's now open, just like Kennedy did for Catholics," Nicholes said. "That sort of national conversation of 'can a Mormon be a major party candidate' has been done. I don't think it's going to be a big deal anymore."

That's good news.

But let's not call Romney the Mormon messiah here.

Nicholes, as well as many other Mormons in the Kootenai County, doesn't support a recent AP story's conclusion that Romney's campaign has ushered in a new era of Mormon acceptance in society.

That acceptance had begun before the campaign, Nicholes said, thanks to efforts the church had already been conducting to become more immersed and accepted in society.

Nicholes pointed to recent media campaigns and aggressive volunteerism that have gained visibility for the church known for large families and missions abroad.

These are efforts, he added, that North Idaho members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - the preferred title of the religion - have been involved in.

That's what has boosted Mormons' recognition, he said.

And that's probably what allowed for Romney's popularity.

"In actuality, it might be that Romney campaign is the result of the mainstreaming of the church, instead of the church becoming mainstream because of the Romney campaign," Nicholes said.

Stigma

Most Mormons have some kind of story.

An encounter with someone who doesn't understand - or outright dislikes - their religion.

It recently happened to Lorraine Thiele, a Carlin Bay resident and PR official for the church, who sometimes reaches out to other churches and organizations.

"At one meeting I went to, a person said, 'Oh, LDS. I try to get people to leave your church,'" she recalled, eyes wide. "I said, 'Well, I'm here to link arms with others to do good,' and he was really taken back by that."

Jason Ball, another Mormon in Coeur d'Alene, had an awkward run-in over his daughter baby-sitting for one of his coworkers.

"When (the dad) came back, he said, 'I would've had your daughter take our kids to your church while we were gone, but I know we're not allowed in your church,'" Ball remembered. "I just said, 'I didn't realize that you didn't realize that you're welcome. That anybody's welcome to come to our church.'"

Misconceptions and dark opinions do tend to circulate about the Mormon religion.

There are concerns that the church founded by Joseph Smith in the 1820s is too insular, that it imposes excessive lifestyle restrictions on members, like forbidding alcohol, smoking, coffee or black tea, and asking members tithe to the church.

Misgivings also arise over the religion's history of polygamy - no longer practiced by the church - and current practices like baptisms for the dead, and wearing special underwear, garments symbolic of church members' promises to God.

But Lorraine, who converted over 30 years ago with her husband John, says that people put off by the religion simply don't understand the benefits for church members, and their satisfaction from the focus on volunteerism, healthy living and nuclear family structure.

"John and I would not have the relationship, the family, anything we enjoy today if we hadn't made that decision back then to go together and embrace this," said Lorraine, who said friends had introduced them to the church.

Mormons are somewhat to blame for others' misconceptions of the church, Nicholes said, because of the tight-knit nature of church members and their activities.

"That's a double-edged sword, because we have been a little insular in the past," he said.

But no more, he added.

"We're trying hard to break out of that," he said.

Outreach

He's not joking about trying hard.

Nicholes pointed to the nationwide "I'm a Mormon" campaign, featuring TV commercials and Internet videos, as well as billboards and buses, highlighting the lifestyles and beliefs of typical Mormons.

The surge of the campaign in 2011 included the Inland Northwest in its target audience. Local church members like Nicholes and the Thieles participated by posting Internet profiles about themselves on Mormon.org.

"These profiles on the Internet are very comprehensive, very personal," said John Thiele, Lorraine's husband, a Delta Airlines pilot who attributes his conversion to the church's values. "I wrote the story of who I am, what I do, and why I was interested in the church."

Nicholes includes the link to his Mormon profile below his email signature, he said.

"It's just a link people can look at, if they want to," he said. "The church has made the decision we'd rather define ourselves."

Local church members also say Mormons are gaining visibility through large-scale community aid, like volunteers rushing in with first providers at the Sandy superstorm.

In North Idaho, LDS churches are trying to boost LDS awareness by pairing with other churches and organizations on community projects, Lorraine said.

She pointed to Mormons supporting the Fresh Start homeless center, contributing to the Post Falls community garden, and helping with the Ignite Hope warming shelter in Post Falls.

"Our church has always been good at disaster relief and getting in there, getting big projects done, but we've always looked at it as kind of cliquish, we've kind of stayed by ourselves," Lorraine said. "So the focus now is to link arms with other organizations that are doing good."

LDS churches in Kootenai County are encouraging people to check things out for themselves, too. Missionaries have been roaming the community, inviting the public to tour local churches.

Although non-Mormons need a recommendation to enter an LDS temple, the venue for important rituals like weddings, anyone is welcome in Mormon churches, different buildings used for regular weekly services.

Also expediting the church's visibility: Mormonism is more prolific in politics and pop culture.

Of course there's Mitt Romney. There are eight Mormons in Congress, too, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Plus, the "Twilight" book series that earned passionate fandom was written by Mormon Stephenie Meyer. Not to mention the hugely successful Broadway show "The Book of Mormon," that garnered nine Tony Awards, written by the (non-Mormon) creators of "South Park."

"It's just a culmination that you've got more members that are out there," said Richard Dance, spokesman for the Hayden LDS stake, who noted that the church has over 6 million members in the U.S. "You have more people who would be in sports and culture."

Progress

There are signs of non-Mormons opening up to the religion, said Julienne Dance, Richard's wife.

Like after ads ran for the "I'm a Mormon" campaign, which the Dances posted Internet profiles for, she had some heartening interactions with neighbors.

"I had friends day, 'You know what? I'm going to vote for Mitt Romney.' I think they felt like it would mean a lot to me because I'm a Mormon," Julienne said with a smile.

Hayden Lake resident Paul Leonard, also a member of the church, said more people wanted to discuss his religion during the "I'm A Mormon" campaign and Romney's presidential bid.

"Various people from other church affiliates have said, 'I'm a little embarrassed, I never thought you guys believed in Jesus Christ,' which is interesting," he said. "A common theme I heard was, 'There are a lot more different kinds of people who are Mormons than the predisposition I had in my head.'"

Leonard does credit Romney with helping break down barriers, he said.

"It was the first time (the public) had heard of someone who was a prominent member of the LDS church speak on a variety of topics," he said.

Local volunteer efforts are helping, too. Howard Martinson, executive director of Fresh Start, touted the free breakfasts LDS members have provided for the nonprofit.

"They have done a number of projects, and they have made a big difference," Martinson said.

Rodney Wright, associate pastor of Lake City Community Church, said he can appreciate the LDS focus on community aid.

"Obviously why you have different denominations of churches is because we don't agree on theological points, but the fact they're wanting to help and do good is a good thing," Wright said.

Mormon acceptance does come a little easier in conservative North Idaho, Nicholes acknowledged, where about 8 percent of the population belongs to the church.

"I've been stake president for 6 years, and we've added hundreds of members in that time," Nicholes said. "It comes from large families, but it mostly comes from converts."

So church members will get over not having one of their own as president.

After all, it isn't the only way to get the word out.

"We're just happy to be here and be part of the community," Nicholes said. "We want to help."

John and Lorraine Thiele pull their plane out of a hangar on their property Friday near Carlin Bay.

 

Aaron Nicholes checks in on his children, Ammon, 19, and Sarah, 17, as they work on projects Tuesday in the computer room of their Post Falls home.

 

Joyce Nicholes has a laugh Tuesday while talking to her son Ammon, 19, at their Post Falls home.

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