“I think of multiple wives and creepy Utah. All the non-mainstream religions are Amish to me,” said Jonah Green ’06 when asked what he thinks about Mormons. While many Cornellians may be unaware of the Mormon population on campus, President George W. Bush’s reelection called American and international attention to the political power of the religious conservative vote.
But conservative religions like Mormonism are not limited to the red states. In fact, a diverse Mormon community calls the Cornell campus home. There are approximately 90 Cornell students who are active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest sect of Mormonism.
Mormons trace their origins to a religion founded in nearby Palmyra, N.Y., by Joseph Smith in about 1830. The religion these churches practice is commonly called Mormonism, although Mormons often refer to themselves as “LDS,” a less stigmatized label than “Mormon.”
The total LDS community in Ithaca numbers approximately 450 members and is split between two groups. The Ithaca Ward serves mostly resident families, students with older children, and non-students. The Cornell Student Branch serves married or single students and young single people who are typically 30 years of age or less.
There are no paid clergy in the Mormon Church; the spiritual leader — referred to as the branch president — and lay ministry are volunteers. Anthony Hay, the Cornell branch president, is also an assistant professor of microbiology and soil eco-toxicology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Casey Johnson law ’06 explains that his Mormonism is not his primary defining characteristic.
“I don’t wear my Mormonism on my sleeve, but it does inform the rest of my identity, and everything I do,” he said.
Lauren Merkley ’05, a Mormon English major from Chicago, confirms that people often make false assumptions about Mormonism.
“They think we practice polygamy, and that I’m from Utah,” she said. “People probably think I’m a goody-goody, or out of touch with reality, like I don’t know what the rest of the world does.”
Merkley said that few of her high school peers questioned her religion, aside from the occasional ribbing about her decision not to drink or do drugs. At Cornell, Merkley has noticed that once her acquaintances find out she’s Mormon, they want to know all about it.
“In college — and especially at a school like Cornell — there’s more of an intellectual curiosity about Mormonism,” she said.
‘The Word of Wisdom’
Plural marriages were discontinued by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over a hundred years ago, although the Mormon faith still values large families. Mormons are also often identified for their abstinence from premarital sex and their decision not to consume alcohol, coffee and caffeinated tea, and not to smoke or abuse other substances. This part of their belief system — probably the most outwardly prominent and noticeable feature of Mormonism — is known as the “Word of Wisdom.” According to the Mormon Doctrine, “the Word of Wisdom is a covenant, conformity to which assures both strength of body and a special spiritual endowment.”
Merkley points out that the Word of Wisdom is just one part of her religion, and that adherence to these health codes falls under the Mormon philosophy of self-governance. For example, since the doctrine says nothing about caffeinated soda, LDS members decide for themselves whether or not they choose to drink it.
“You interpret the Word of Wisdom in the context of your life; it’s not all hard-and-fast ‘dos’ and ‘do nots,'” Merkley said.
Johnson echoes Merkley’s sentiments concerning personal interpretation along with his roommate, another former Brigham Young University student, Bryan Campbell ’05.
“For some reason, non-Mormons like to tell you what you can and can’t do. When you’re a minority — I guess we’re a behavioral minority — you sometimes feel like you have to be the spokesperson or poster child for Mormonism,” Johnson said. But “it’s not really about what’s against the rules and what’s allowed.”
In fact, both Campbell and Johnson have worked as bartenders at a TGI Friday’s.
“Some Mormons might say that this is involving yourself with the appearance of evil,” Johnson said. “But as long as it’s not a compromising situation for you … it’s about the environment you’re going to choose.”
Johnson points out that some Mormons in Provo, Utah — where Brigham Young University is located — refused to even sit in the bar area of the restaurant.
The Cornell LDS community resists the stereotype that all Mormons are fundamentalist conservatives.
“People probably think Mormons are cultish just because a large percentage actually follows the beliefs,” Merkley said.
She notes that although the Mormon Church is overwhelmingly Republican, she suspects that members of the Cornell branch are mostly Democratic. Merkley describes her parents — a businessman and a florist, in suburban Chicago — as “on the liberal end of Mormonism.” She didn’t grow up with a lot of household rules, and as the executive director of On Site Volunteer Services and a board member of the Public Service Center’s Alternative Breaks program, Merkley is involved in many social justice causes.
Johnson, who took a two-year break from BYU after his freshman year to serve his mission in Pennsylvania, explained: “Being self-righteous or preachy is not part of the doctrine, but it is a missionary religion. If you really care about your fellow person, you want to help them find something better. It’s like, ‘I have this delicious cake, and I think it’s really good. But I’m not going to shove it down their throat if they don’t want it.'”
Johnson says he’s not going to walk down College Avenue on a Friday night preaching at the crowds of scantily-clad women and inebriated undergrads, but if one of his students from the LSAT course he teaches comes to him for personal guidance, his advice will probably be based in his Mormon faith.
For many young Mormon students, choosing which college to attend is a major decision. Brigham Young University, with low tuition costs and generous financial aid, is often a top choice. But “BYU is a church school. An overarching dogma permeates everything there,” Johnson said.
Students are required to live on single-sex floors in residence halls or approved off-campus apartments, must follow strict curfews and male/female visitation rules and adhere to a dress code that prohibits shorts or skirts above the knee; sleeveless tops; long hair and stubble for men; and cleavage or more than one ear piercing for women.
Merkley says that finally being among other Mormons her age was not enough of a draw for her to attend BYU. “My parents didn’t grow up in Utah, and neither did I, so I’m used to being an anomaly. I knew I could push myself intellectually at a place like Cornell.”
While Merkley does not regret her decision to come to Cornell, she knows that going to BYU would have been “really easy. I wouldn’t be out of my comfort zone. I wouldn’t have to explain or justify myself. My social life would be very different, because people would be interested in doing — or not doing — the same things. Sometimes that does frustrate me here. But I came here because I wanted to challenge myself, both academically and socially.”
Campbell agrees: “I’ve become stronger in my faith by talking to people who don’t believe everything I do.”
Campbell, who grew up outside of Binghamton in a family of eight children, attended high school with only two or three other Mormons. He decided not to go to Cornell at first due to the high tuition, and instead chose to attend BYU, the alma mater of both his parents and his older sister. However, in search of a “more well-rounded education,” Campbell decided to transfer to Cornell for his senior year. Campbell is a biological sciences major planning to attend medical school and also volunteers with the Student Health Alliance and teaches SAT
prep courses at the Kaplan Center in Collegetown.
Johnson graduated from BYU with a degree in the humanities and French literature, and he decided to apply to Cornell Law School because he was ready for a change. He grew up in a family of six in Fountain Green, Utah, a town where only 2 out of 1,000 residents were not Mormon.
“BYU made the most sense for me, because I was able to balance scholastic and spiritual learning,” Johnson said.
Campbell also says that many Mormon students come to BYU from far and wide, with expectations that are often too high. “They look forward to being there, like it’s heaven on earth or something.” But such anticipation can lead to disappointment:
“There is a strong culture of discontent, because sometimes you feel like you’re in a fish bowl or part of a crusade. There are a lot of students who don’t want to be there, whose parents are sending their problem kids to BYU, thinking it will solve everything,” Campbell explained. Those who try to “rebel” at BYU are promptly expelled, Campbell added.
Although Merkley never outwardly rebelled against her religion, she recalls questioning her religion during her freshman year of high school.
“Like any teenager, you go through transition times. You know, the ‘Who am I?’ thing. Internally, I was thinking, do I really believe this? How do I know it’s true?” Merkley explains that reflection and private repentance are major characteristics of Mormonism. “It comes down to praying — personal revelation. God will send comfort, or peace, to help you understand whatever questions or problems you have.”
Even though both Johnson and Campbell acknowledge that they would prefer their wives to be stay-at-home moms, at BYU the two young men felt the lack of motivated women with high academic and career aspirations. Because the church encourages large families and more old-fashioned or traditional gender roles, “many of the female students are majoring in early childhood education, and are just at BYU to get married,” Johnson said. “I don’t have anything against said major, but if it’s all a girl thinks she can validly study, that is a misconception and she is selling herself short. And you want to meet a girl who’s smart, stimulating, interesting … not hunting for a husband,” Johnson explains.
Both men have been similarly frustrated by the “contrived social activities” organized for Cornell Branch single students.
“Some Mormons would say that we have an obligation to go to every event. But we have to get creative, and at this age I’m just not that into watching Shrek 2 during a pajama party in a dorm room, or playing board games,” Johnson said, explaining why it is hard for him to meet other Mormon singles. “I hate being told what to do, and awkward or disingenuous social situations.”
The dating scene is complicated by the fact that a non-Mormon must convert in order to marry a Mormon, and the vow of chastity sometimes becomes an obstacle in a developing relationship. Plus, “Mormons tend to cling to each other, because they really want to feel that connection,” Campbell said. Merkley adds that she can’t imagine marrying a non-Mormon because it would be difficult for someone without a shared value system to completely understand her. Johnson and Campbell are in their second years at Cornell — and away from BYU — and both admit that being a Mormon at Cornell can sometimes feel a little isolating.
Despite the difficulties of being a religious minority, Merkley says that during her four years at Cornell she’s learned a lot about diversity, tolerance, and understanding.
“I think it’s important for not all Mormons to be shut up in Utah. Sometimes BYU suffers from closed-mindedness, thinking it’s a microcosm of the world when really it’s nothing of the sort.” Merkley continues, “You know, we claim to live in a tolerant nation. … I’ve never personally experienced extreme prejudice, but, like any religion, Mormonism can be stigmatized and stereotyped.”
Archived article by Ariel Brewster
Special to The Sun