With a Mormon leading the Republican presidential primary campaign and another in the running, many Mormons in the Bay Area and across the country are warily optimistic about the newfound attention.
A first-of-its kind survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that Mormons feel misunderstood, but they also believe that acceptance of their faith is on the rise.
"Outsiders have a tendency to think Mormons are weird," said Morgan Hill resident Julie Hawker. "I think we all have a tendency to simplify another group of people. If they got to know us, I don't think they would find us so weird and crazy."
The survey shows Mormons, followers of the religious movement that Joseph Smith founded 181 years ago, believe they are discriminated against more than atheists, evangelicals and African-Americans, but not as much as gays and Muslims.
"You have a lot of Mormons who feel like their faith is misunderstood," said Pew researcher Gregory Smith, who said that apart from the Mormon church's own research, his is the first national survey to ask Mormons about their religion and their place in American society.
Smith said 63 percent of Mormons believe acceptance is rising and 56 percent believe Americans are ready to elect a Mormon president.
One in 10 U.S. Mormons lives in California, giving the state the largest Mormon population outside Utah. The Bay Area is a Mormon hub, home to an estimated 100,000 members of the
The East Bay had a burgeoning Mormon congregation in 1924, when a prophet and former church president is said to have looked over the bay from a San Francisco hotel and envisioned a "great white temple of the Lord" in the Oakland hills.
Dedicated in 1964, the five-spire Oakland Temple remains a regional center of Mormon life.
"I love the Bay Area for its tolerance and respect of all types of people. In many respects, this is the ideal environment, not only for Mormons but people of any faith, or nonfaith," said Richard Kopf, a corporate attorney from Alamo who converted to Mormonism in the 1960s and is the church's regional spokesman.
At a 6 a.m. class Wednesday in central Hayward, Carol Welch stood in front of a map of the Holy Land, a King James Bible in her hand and eight tired teenagers in front of her.
The class, known as seminary, meets every weekday, and this year the focus is on the Old Testament. In another year, if they haven't already, the teenagers will get to the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, the document that adherents believe was written by ancient prophets and translated by Joseph Smith in the early 19th century.
Growing up Episcopalian in Alameda, Welch converted to Mormonism in the late 1980s. She wanted to raise her children in a religious tradition but wasn't sure which one until two suited missionaries appeared on her Fremont doorstep.
"I was the world's biggest skeptic," Welch said. "When friends found out I was joining the Mormon church, they were shocked."
The 63-year-old said she is regularly countering misconceptions. Mormons are nearly unanimous in describing themselves as Christian and believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, according to the Pew study, but Welch said many people still think Mormons aren't Christian.
"There are so many religions that have been ridiculed over time," she said.
Far more socially and politically conservative than the public, according to the Pew survey, some Mormons clashed with Bay Area gays and lesbians during the battle over Proposition 8, the ban on same-sex marriage passed by voters in 2008.
Hawker, who teaches critical thinking and argumentation at San Jose State, stayed out of the fray.
"I don't think Mormons are being singled out any more than any other group, but Prop. 8 did not help many people's perceptions of Mormons," she said.
A political moderate, Hawker prefers former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Mormon, over front-runner Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and also a Mormon.
About 86 percent of all Mormon voters view Romney favorably, and even Mormon Democrats approve of Romney as much as the average Republican voter, says the Pew study.
Is Mormonism a Christian religion?
Being a good Mormon
Questions of morality
Pew Forum's 2011 National Survey of Mormons was taken from Oct. 25 to Nov. 16. For a full report on the survey, visit www.pewforum.org.