|Pioneer Peak, the 6,398 ft landmark of the Mat-Su Valley|
The Mat-Su Frontiersman has published a column by retired Baptist Pastor Howard Bess entitled "Comfortable or not, the Mormons are with us", in which he delivers his assessment about the impact of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna Valley. He was obviously prompted by the public debate triggered by the presence of two Mormons, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. in the presidential race. Because Bess is a registered Democrat, neither of the two command his political allegiance at the moment. He does believe religion should be fair game in order to show how a candidate's faith would function in the public political arena, and wants to hear more hard religious questions asked of all candidates.
It's obvious that Howard Bess highly respects the local LDS community and its impact. He writes:
...I live in a community with a heavy Mormon population. There are three large general education public high schools in our area. Near each of them is a beautiful Mormon church. Each is home to multiple congregations. With their distinctive architecture and manicured lawns, a person would have to be blind and uninformed not to recognize the extent of the Mormon presence.
Mormons are an active part of our community structures. Mormons serve on most of our elected boards, councils and assemblies. While I have no research to support my understanding, I strongly suspect Mormons have a much better voting record than the general population. In my own experience, Mormons are responsible public citizens.
Mormons are great supporters of the public school system. Mormon young people bring a strong work ethic and personal discipline to our schools and school activities. Teachers love to have them in their classrooms and coaches are eager to have them on their teams. These kids obviously are coming from stable homes with positive motivations. We have a growing number of Mormon teachers and school administrators. We are a more stable and better functioning community because Mormons are our neighbors. We are blessed by the heavy Mormon presence in our Valley...
Right on all counts, and we appreciate the props. Howard Bess also notes that there are two significant developments taking place among Mormons. First, he notes the significant campaign to identify ourselves more explicitly as Christians, and believes this will ultimately lead to full partnership within the Christian community and our evolution into a large, vigorous and distinct Evangelical Protestant denomination.
Second, he also suggests that we are becoming the model for American family life through our successful faithfulness to the two-parent model at a time when there are so many single-parent families. We show that the two-parent family is doable and that it works better. He concludes by saying "The Mormons are with us. They are our neighbors. We need to know them better. One of them could well be our next president".
What's interesting is that Howard Bess refrained from making any remarks about LDS policy towards homosexuals. This omission is significant because when he was a pastor, Bess was one of their first mainstream Christian pastors in Alaska to call for greater inclusion of gays in Christian churches. In 1995, he even wrote a book entitled "Pastor, I Am Gay" to drive the point home. It was not very well-received by some socially conservative Christians in Alaska. He even ran afoul of Sarah Palin, who allegedly tried to have the book removed from the Wasilla Public Library while she was mayor. Yet Bess respects our church's right to require gays to be celibate in order to be members of our church.
The LDS Church in the Mat-Su Valley is organized under the Wasilla Stake, which has 13 congregations, 11 of which are in the Valley itself. The other two are located in Valdez and Glennallen.