Is 2012 good for the Mormons?

Charles Krupa AP Republican presidential candidate, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, visits St. Paul’s Lutheran Church while campaigning in Berlin, … Continued

Charles Krupa


Republican presidential candidate, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, visits St. Paul’s Lutheran Church while campaigning in Berlin, N.H. Dec. 22, 2011.

What are we to think, now that a Mormon has clinched the presidential nomination of one of America’s two major parties? The respectable Victorian men who ruled America’s politics during the 1912 election would have been stricken with chills at the thought of a presidential election a century hence pitting a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints against an African American. So looked at in one way, the 2012 election – like the 2008 – signals that America does seem to be a melting pot. African Americans and Mormons alike – like Catholics before them – once reviled and suspect minorities, are now capable participants in American public life.

But looked at from another way, perhaps the melting pot is a less than adequate metaphor. The Mormons, particularly, seem to have reached only that level of assimilation absolutely required to avoid complete exclusion from American culture. In part this is because Mormons like it that way. There are things about American culture they find uncomfortable. But it is also in part because depending on the poll you choose, anywhere from ten to thirty percent of the American public are hesitant about voting for a Mormon president. These numbers are the product of a long history of negotiation between Mormonism and American culture writ large.

It is common to compare Mitt Romney to John F. Kennedy. In 1960, many Americans were suspicious of Catholicism, wary of the power they imagined the pope held over the minds of his followers and bemused by elements of Catholic theology and practice. These are attitudes Mormons have a weary familiarity with. But upon his election John F. Kennedy did not conspire to destroy the republic, nor prove a credulous puppet of the pope, nor mandate that American citizens pay Mary respect. It seems common sense that his presidency went a long way toward normalizing Roman Catholicism.

View Photo Gallery: “The Mormon story is a quintessentially American tale,” writes On Faith columnist Lisa Miller, calling on Romney to own his faith as his greatest asset.

However, Kennedy was more product than cause of Catholic normalization. The long conversation between Catholicism and America had neared its end by 1960. The year Kennedy was inaugurated Roman Catholicism was the single largest religious denomination in the United States, and Catholics were well integrated into America’s schools, clubs, TV shows, and movies. Americans had Catholic neighbors, and by virtue of familiarity and boatloads of immigrants Catholicism had ceased to be weird.

Mormons face a steeper climb. Their religion lacks the magisterial tradition of Roman Catholicism or Islam; thus many Americans find Mormon theology faintly fantastical and thus presume that Mormons must be either somewhat credulous or somewhat dim. There are roughly as many Mormons in the world as there are Jews, and a mere six million in the United States; thus many Americans know few or no Mormons, and are comfortable generalizing from Mitt Romney’s awkwardness on the stump or the behavior of characters on “Big Love” or rumors they heard in college. Mormonism as yet lacks the respectable patina of age and acquaintanceship. These are not things Mitt Romney can grant it.

What, then, will 2012 do for Mormons? They are, like any collection of Americans, rather divided. Some are uncomfortable with the endless stream of stories reading Mormonism into every Romney twitch or malapropism. Many others welcome the spotlight, and hope that this time Americans may prove willing to, if not elect one of their own to the presidency, at least grant them respect. After all, this is not the first Mormon moment. Nor will it likely be the last. If America is not a melting pot, perhaps it might hang together like a patchwork quilt.

Matthew Bowman is author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”

  • XVIIHailSkins

    ‘Their religion lacks the magisterial tradition of Roman Catholicism or Islam; thus many Americans find Mormon theology faintly fantastical and thus presume that Mormons must be either somewhat credulous or somewhat dim.’

    This is faintly understated. The ‘magisterial’ traditions of Roman Catholicism and Islam have already waged an effective war on the human intellect, so I think people are a bit leery of a new monotheism that offers its constituents the opportunity to lord over another planet after death. One would have to be entirely credulous or entirely dim to subscribe to Mormonism, and the last thing this country needs is another hyperactive voting bloc full of the dim and credulous.

  • mouell1

    Is it a good year for Black Liberation Theology?

  • XVIIHailSkins

    I didn’t vote for him, but one of Obama’s few redeeming traits is the fact that he is an obvious atheist. When knuckle draggers like yourself try to resurrect the idea that he actually subscribes to Rev. Wright’s black liberation cult you reinforce the idea that the political right is the party of the imbecile. Since I consider myself a conservative, kindly change your tactics before you embarrass me further.

  • jsmith4

    The author notes that “many Americans find Mormon theology faintly fantastical and thus presume that Mormons must be either somewhat credulous or somewhat dim.”

    Christian theology describes a serpent in the garden of Eden, a Virgin Birth, numerous miracles, a man flying up into the sky after he has died…etc etc

    And Mormon theology is notable for being “fantastical.” They ALL are.

  • jsmith4

    If you care about facts, you would know that the great majority of Mormons are no more “dim and credulous” than other US believers. In fact, they are more highly educated than average, and show up as better informed on most surveys of general knowledge. The 90% of god-believing people in the US believe loads of theological garbage, no sweeter smelling than the Mormon’s version.

  • gwilt1

    Wow. Why is it that articles on Mormons always bring out the bigots? They must really feel threatened.

  • JoelCannon1

    XVIIHailSkins, we live in an extremely complicted universe and as humans, we have limited cognative abilities. Our brains are designed to simplify and look for patterns to make sense of things. There are many systems that exist – some of them are called religion, but not all of them. Even atheists will believe in things that are not proven as facts – and what others might call superstions. Just look at all the various diets and medical philosophies that exists in the secular world. It is common to think our own culture is legitmate and redicule others that are different.

    You demonstrate the same fault that you project when you state “One would have to be entirely credulous or entirely dim to subscribe to Mormonism”. The only proof you offer is that which reflects on you personally.


    6 new top-of-the-page articles on the Mormon cult.

    Naw, WaPo isn’t in the bag for Romney and Mormonism.


    There are more Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists (or Sadventists, as novelist Ray Garton renamed them) – than Mormons. How come no major coverage of their cults?

    Because a JoHo or Sadventist isn’t running for president.

    As cults go, Mormonism has less historical cred than Haitian voodoo, but more than Scientology or Satansism.

  • jsmith4

    Correct and humane.
    However, SOME (many?) religious beliefs ARE ridiculous. In the literal sense of “worthy of ridicule.”
    I know we good boys are supposed to deal with those who hold such beliefs on a basis that respects their humanity. And in many (most?) cases they are pretty smart people.

  • ccnl1

    Putting the kibosh/”google” on religion to include Mormonism:

    • There was probably no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • There was probably no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • WmarkW

    Between the LDS church and Jeremiah Wright, I’m hoping theology does not become a major issue in this campaign.

  • bytebear

    “The Mormons, particularly, seem to have reached only that level of assimilation absolutely required to avoid complete exclusion from American culture.”

    I find that statement bizarre. Donnie and Marie? David Achuletta? Gladys Knight? Steve Young? Nepoleon Dynamite? Mormons are American culture.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Assuming your particular sect is the focal point of American culture is about as American as it gets, so I won’t argue with you on this one.


    Or you could add bigoted piece of crap Orson Scott Card.

    The only mormon I ever really liked was Mick Ronson, long-time guitarist for Bowie. Bet you HE wasn’t part of th poisonous mormon hive-mind.

  • jsmith4

    No byte, despite Donny and Marie, the column has it right. Like orthodox jews and similar groups, the Mormons have a value on keeping a degree of separateness from the larger society. Only Mormons can get to the highest level of heaven, after all.

Read More Articles

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

Why I Want to Be Culturally Evangelical

I’ve lost my faith. Do I have to lose my heritage, too?

What Is a Saint?

How the diversity of saintly lives reveals multiple paths toward God.

An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.