Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, arguably the nation's best-known Mormon, once was a Mormon missionary. He drinks neither coffee nor tea. His wife, according to Mormon tradition, keeps months' worth of food storage for emergencies.
The presidential campaign, along with TV shows and a hit Broadway musical, have propelled the religion into the spotlight, shaping perceptions and subjecting Mormonism to repeated dissection by pastors and pundits.
A survey released Thursday that asks Mormons what they think of themselves sheds new light on how accurate America's picture of one of the religion may be. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's extensive study, conducted in the fall, asked Mormons questions on issues ranging from how they interpret their religion to their views on homosexuality, marriage, politics and Mormons' place in America.
Fewer than half of Mormons, it turns out, say avoiding caffeine is essential to being a good member of the church. Latter-Day Saints church guidelines recommend Mormons keep three months' food in case of emergency, but only 23 percent of Mormons keep that much. When it comes to the missionaries who knock on neighborhood doors, just over one in four church members have done a full time mission.
"Six in 10 Mormons say they think Americans know little or nothing about their religion," said Gregory Smith, a senior researcher at Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life whose team that surveyed 1,019 Mormons. "Yet, there's a dichotomy in the way Mormons think they are perceived in American society, compared to the direction of where things may be headed."
With two Mormons -- Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman -- vying for the Republican presidential nomination, 56 percent of Mormons said they believe the country is ready for a president who shares their faith, the survey said.
Two-thirds of Mormons describe themselves as politically conservative, while three out of four lean toward the Republican Party. Mormons overwhelmingly said they have favorable views of Romney and Huntsman, but did not take well to President Barack Obama.
Mormonism has been a hot-button issue among some evangelical pastors in presidential primary election states. Many of those pastors have said they disagree with Mormon beliefs on issues that include the nature of the Trinity and scripture. The critics include a prominent Texas minister who made headlines in October for calling Mormonism a "cult."
According to the Pew survey, nine in 10 Mormons believe that the Latter-day Saints church president is a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon was written by ancient prophets. Similarly large percentages say their families can be bound together for eternity through temple ceremonies and that God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate, physical beings, while the Holy Ghost is a "personage of spirit." Each is "one in mind and purpose." Despite differences from most Christian religions, 97 percent of Mormons see themselves as Christian.
Still, the same number of Mormons and evangelical Protestants -- 74 percent -- say that abortion is morally wrong and 79 percent of Mormons believe sex outside marriage is wrong, compared with 61 percent of evangelical Protestants. More than half of Mormons say drinking alcohol is morally wrong, compared with less than a fourth of evangelical Protestants.
Two-thirds of Mormons say homosexuality should be discouraged, but more than a fourth say it should be accepted. More Mormons think there is discrimination against gay people (59 percent) and Muslims (55 percent) than against themselves (46 percent).
While many members of the Latter-day Saints church, including Romney and Huntsman, can trace themselves to long lineages of Mormons, one in four Mormons say they converted. Of those, over half say they joined for the religion's beliefs.
"A lot of people said to us things such as, 'It was true,' or, 'I found the truth,'" Smith said. Other converts, he said, told surveyers "'the religion makes sense to me.'"
CORRECTION: This article has been changed to reflect data on the growth of the country's Mormon population.