Stephen Smoot

“Being a Mormon isn't an easy path.”

Heather Beeseck, a sophomore secondary education major at Potomac State College, would know. She has been involved with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for two years and was baptized into the faith on August 6, 2011.

The Church, according to the National Review, is the fourth largest religious organization in the United States. Its numbers expand at 2.5 percent higher rates than the Roman Catholic Church and may soon pass the United Methodist Church in size.

Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry published estimates that 800 people per day joined the faith. Just under 12 million worship in it worldwide.

Despite their growing strength of numbers, Mormons face a unique challenge of perception. Media coverage is usually the first time that non Mormons are exposed to the faith. As Beeseck explains, “Many people have never met a Latter-Day Saint. Five years ago, I hadn't. The media is all some people ever know about the church, and even once those individuals meet a Mormon, they don't always revise their opinions.”

This can be problematic, as when Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC claims that Mormonism was “invented” to excuse “Joseph Smith’s infidelity.” Or when the Huffington Post’s Andrea Stone implies that Mitt Romney has some power to change Church doctrine.

Tom O’Neill, vice chair of the West Virginia Republican Party, has been a Church member for 20 years and active in it for almost a quarter century. He does not see most media coverage as overtly malicious, but says that negative stories “are more often than not the products of misunderstanding.”

Beeseck agrees and states that “for or the most part, the media tries to get its facts right, or at least be believable for their audience.” She then warns that, “when they do get it wrong, the average person believes them.”

Misconceptions stem from salacious accusations about the faith, especially coverage of renegade polygamist cults. Covering these stories without mentioning that the Church does not condone polygamy leaves a false impression in the public mind. For example, Mike Taibbi narrated a segment on NBC’s Rock Center that highlighted an ancestor of Romney’s from the 1800s who fled to Mexico to escape prosecution for polygamy. For some reason, NBC considered this a relevant story to run on the eve of the New Hampshire primary.

Stephen Smoot

Dr. Stephen A. Smoot is a columnist, historian, political adviser, and media expert. He lives with his family in West Virginia.