November 20, 2012
By Neil J. Young
No sooner had Mitt Romney lost the presidential election than various pundits and journalists began to declare that the "Mormon moment" was over. Certainly, Romney's candidacies in 2008 and 2012 brought about increased visibility and often scrutiny for Mormonism. Since its founding less than two hundred years ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been often ridiculed, attacked and misunderstood by a skeptical and American public. But as Americans learned more about Romney through the campaigns, many wanted to better understand his faith and what impact it might have on his presidency. Owing to that interest, the American media landscape cultivated a robust and largely informative conversation about all things Mormon, including its baptismal practices, the church's missionary efforts, the status of Mormon women and African-Americans, and the faith's history regarding polygamy. "What Do Mormons Believe?"has read the headline of numerous articles of late.
But while Romney's presidential ambitions no doubt magnified popular interest in Mormonism, observers are wrong to declare the "Mormon moment" over now that Romney has been denied the White House. This heightened interested in Mormonism preceded Romney's bid for the highest office, and the cultural, political and religious significance that modern Mormonism has achieved in the last decade guarantees that this Mormon moment will long outlast the temporary prominence Romney enjoyed.
Some commenters have quibbled with the notion that this Mormon moment has been a unique phenomenon or even a solely American story. Joanna Brooks, author of the recent memoir "Book of Mormon Girl," observed that "there have been many Mormon moments, and many more to come." Brooks also noted to me that whatever public visibility the LDS Church has enjoyed in the U.S. of late needs to be considered within the faith's "new global reach" that is spreading Mormonism through countries around the world. Indeed, to think of an American "Mormon moment" is to lose sight of the much more significant international developments the LDS Church is carrying out through its proselytizing efforts and its institutional expansion.
Despite Romney's loss, the Mormon political moment has clearly not expired. Well before Romney's rise to the national stage, the LDS Church had made its mark on national politics through its fight against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and '80s, its opposition to abortion, and its battles against gay rights and same-sex marriage initiatives in states around the country, most famously its role in the passage of California's Proposition 8 in 2008. The church will likely remain active around these issues and others that it sees as related to the defense of the traditional family and may also become energized around questions of religious liberty, as evangelicals and Catholics have. Prominent Mormon politicians have spanned the political spectrum, including notably Senate Majority Leader Henry Reid. Thanks to the most recent election, 17 Mormons will serve in the next House and Senate -- more than Congress has seen in over a decade. Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who made a rather tepid showing in the most recent race for the GOP presidential nomination, is already being talked about as a likely challenger for 2016. "If the church is as ambitious as it has been accused of being," Stephen Mansfield, author of the recently published book, "The Mormonizing of America," wrote me, "then to nearly grasp the ultimate token of American power and be denied will only create a greater hunger than ever to see a Mormon in the White House."
On the cultural front, Mormonism has been the subject of numerous popular entertainment hits. From successful TV shows like HBO's "Big Love" and TLC's "Sister Wives" to the hottest Broadway ticket in years, "The Book of Mormon," Americans have tuned in and turned out to watch various depictions of America's largest homegrown religion, and the popularity of these shows and other depictions of Mormonism is unlikely to wane after the Romney loss. Most of these offerings appeal to Americans, in part, because they engage, either directly or obliquely, the faith's tricky relationship with its polygamous past (and, in some cases, Mormon splinter groups' polygamous present). Probably no other aspect of Mormonism has more consistently intrigued Americans than this issue of polygamy, so it's not surprising this has been such a prominent theme in pop culture representations of the faith. Considering that Mormonism has become so thoroughly mainstreamed and so quintessentially American, squaring the faith's clean-cut, conservative reputation with its more scandalous historical practices has been excellent creative fodder for popular entertainment. Look for such cultural treatments of Mormonism to continue. For example, Ron Howard is set to direct the film adaptation of John Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven," a true-life story of two Mormon brothers who got caught up in polygamy and murder. But whether mainstream entertainment features of Mormonism can move past this fixation with polygamy into depictions that more accurately portray the breadth and diversity of the modern Mormon experience remains to be seen.
The notion of some contemporary "Mormon moment" becomes all the more problematic when considering the faith in the obvious context of religion. Since Mormonism's founding in the early 19th century, Americans have most actively engaged with the faith, if at all, on religious grounds, not surprisingly. The very claims of the faith -- that Mormonism offered a restored Christianity through a new scripture to a world that had fallen away from the truth -- obviously struck at the heart of both Catholicism and Protestantism, and Catholic and Protestant leaders responded with little appreciation for Mormonism's challenge to traditional Christianity. Evangelicals, particularly, have watched Mormonism closely, especially as the upstart faith began to spread from its Rocky Mountain base across the country in the late 20th century. Considering this longstanding evangelical concern with Mormonism's expansion, it's not surprising that Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission doesn't think we've been in a "Mormon moment" but rather the latest iteration of a much longer "social movement of Mormons into mainstream traditional society." Dr. Land predicts that trend will continue with ramifications for American politics and culture, but also in terms of Mormon-evangelical relations.
One of the most significant developments of this present "Mormon moment" no doubt has been the evangelical reevaluation of Mormonism. While evangelicals had long considered Mormonism a cult, that emphasis has fallen away in recent years. Some cynics might argue that this development -- most baldly exemplified in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's removal from its website of its designation of Mormonism as a cult religion shortly following Graham's releasing of a letter supporting Romney's candidacy -- has been made for only political calculations, but Dr. Land sees things differently. "Politics was the occasion, but not the reason," Land told me. Land prefers to describe Mormonism as the "fourth Abrahamic religion" after Judaism, Christianity and Islam rather than a "cult" because Mormons "are about as un-cultic in their behavior as anybody," though he did insist Mormons could not be considered Christians by a traditional orthodox understanding of Christianity. "I look upon Mormons as followers of a different religion," Land explained, but he expected evangelicals and Mormons would continue to recognize their shared "values and convictions" even if they could not find much theological common ground. But in a culture seen as increasingly liberal and secular by both Mormons and evangelicals, conversations between them about common values may trump battles over theological differences and will likely yield important political consequences.
In 1964, Ezra Taft Benson, then a high-ranking official in the LDS Church who would go on to become its president from 1985 to 1994, observed that Mormons had "been driven, mobbed, misunderstood, and maligned. We have been a peculiar people. Now we are faced with world applause. It has been a welcome change, but can we stand acceptance? Can we meet the danger of applause? In the hour of a man's success applause can be his greatest danger."
Benson's words seem relevant once again for Mormons as they consider this recent spate of attention for their faith. Michael Otterson, spokesman for the LDS Church, recently commented that "the irony of all the attention" due to Romney's presidential campaign "is that it was not sought" by the church. Still, Otterson said the church recognized the opportunity Romney's candidacy had afforded it to become better understood by the public. Otterson projected that 2012 would come to be understood "not as the eclipse of a 'Mormon moment,' but as the beginning of the real emergence of American Mormons, with all of their distinctiveness, into the rich mosaic of American religious life." Such a prediction seems likely. In the end, it may have been just Romney, not Mormonism, who enjoyed a brief moment. As Mormonism continues to gain in cultural, political and religious relevance, historians may one day be describing a Mormon millennium rather than a moment.