The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on July 13, 2011
A Mormon Moment?

On July 5, 2011, The Boston Globe carried a story by Joanna Weiss with the title “Mormons on center stage”. She felt that we are in a Mormon moment. She may well be right.

Mormons are certainly very visible on the political scene. As Republican candidates for the presidency are popping in and out at a bewildering rate, it is a little difficult to keep count. But as of this moment two Mormons, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, are definitely in. To make sure that the Mormon moment, if indeed upon us, is nonpartisan, one must note that Harry Reid, the Democrat heading the Senate, is also a Mormon (though, interestingly, he is a convert, while the two Republicans were born in the faith). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), the mainline Mormon church, has also been prominently in the political news. It very actively supported Proposition 8 in California, which advocated a ban on same-sex marriage in the state. The media have also been doing their part. The television serial “Big Love” rather sympathetically portrayed a Mormon polygamous family—somewhat irrelevantly, since the LDS church officially rejected polygamy over a century ago, leaving the practice to relatively small splinter groups. One such group made big news (if not big love) when the authorities removed a large number of children from a polygamous compound in Texas, on the suspicion of possible child abuse. Currently a Broadway hit, “The Book of Mormon”, makes good-humored fun of some Mormon oddities (such as the proscription of coffee), but also, as Weiss put it in her article, presented “a sunny view of the Mormon faith,” stressing its wholesomeness, optimism and overall Americanism. Romney probably had it right when he observed, “You know a faith has finally made it when people are making fun of you on Broadway.” One only has to recall the triumphant march of Jewish humor through American popular culture.

Mormonism has certainly been a distinctly American success story. It came right out of the famous “Burnt-Over District “ in upstate New York, the locale in the nineteenth century of a long series of charismatic and utopian movements, where Joseph Smith had the revelations that gave birth to the Mormon faith. Those origins were dramatic enough. But the long trek of Mormon migrants under Brigham Young across the continent to the New Zion of Utah is one of the most dramatic stories in American history. They did practice polygamy at the time and they did their best to multiply in accordance with God’s commandment to Abraham—making their descendants “as the dust of the earth”. Brigham Young—the father of his country indeed—all by himself is claimed as an ancestor by a remarkable number of people in Utah. But even in the absence of polygamy, mainline Mormons are markedly procreation-friendly. However, the impressive worldwide growth of Mormonism is not primarily due to strong fertility. It is a vigorously missionary religion. One of its outstanding characteristics is the requirement that all young men must perform two years of missionary work. Thus Jon Huntsman served as a missionary in Taiwan, apparently acquiring a decent command of Chinese.

As with many religious groups, Mormon demographic statistics are unreliable. The authoritative Atlas of Global Christianity (2009), generally a good demographic source, irritatingly subsumes Mormons under a category of “Marginal Christians”, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses and smaller groups whose Christian credentials are questioned by major church bodies. For what it’s worth, the Atlas suggests that there are now over 15 million of these “marginals” worldwide. Official LDS statistics are more precise. They claim a global total of 13 million Mormons, with 6 million in the U.S. and 7 million in other countries. Even if these figures are not completely accurate, it is not disputed that the religion has grown very impressively, especially outside the U.S. I have no idea why this so, but Mormonism has been unusually successful in attracting converts in the South Pacific. Thus in Tonga, 54% of the population are counted by the Atlas as “marginals”. Given what we know about the spread of Mormonism in Polynesia, we may assume that the main chunk of these “marginals” are Mormons. A major center for the training of Mormon missionaries is located in Hawaii.

I don’t know whether Mormons are important in Tongan politics. They do have some difficulties in American politics. Evangelicals, an important constituency for the Republican party, tend to be suspicious of Mormons as “not really Christian”. The two presidential candidates are of course aware of the problem, and have each reacted to it a little differently. Romney has affirmed the “really Christian” character of his Mormon faith, sometimes making positively Evangelical noises. Huntsman has said that different religions have influenced him. As to more secular or religiously liberal people, Mormonism is suspect because of some supposedly “weird” beliefs and practices. There is the belief that Jesus came to America after his resurrection (the main narrative of the Book of Mormon). There is also the belief that marriage is eternal (a rather frightening extension of the notion of marital fidelity—perhaps less frightening if there are several wives to whom one must be eternally faithful). Then there is the practice of baptizing large numbers of dead people, collecting their names from all sorts of databases (which practice explains why the world’s biggest center for genealogical research is located in Salt Lake City). Some Jewish groups became understandably upset when it became known that dead Jews, whose names were listed in various sources, were retroactively converted to Mormonism; that practice was discontinued.  It is curious, by the way, that more Democrats than Republicans have told pollsters that they would never vote for a Mormon to become president.

I don’t know how politically significant these doubts actually are. The acceptance of Catholics in American politics is instructive in this regard. Protestants have long held that the Roman church is “not really Christian”, and some Evangelicals to this day believe that the Pope is Antichrist. As to the “weirdness” factor, the original sources of most religious traditions (including the New Testament) contain stories and assertions that seem “weird” to modern skeptical minds. Every tradition is reinterpreted over time, and there is no reason to think that Mormonism is immune to this process. The renunciation of polygamy, originally given revelatory status, already offers proof of this—as does the more recent revocation of the rule that African-Americans cannot be admitted into the priesthood. Most Americans believe in the First Amendment and the prohibition of religious tests for public office, and they trust candidates who proclaim that they too share these beliefs.

In the long run, I think, the acceptability of Mormonism as an unproblematic presence in American culture and politics will be due to its very visible all-American character. Even more specifically, it will be due to its unmistakable “Protestant flavor”. This is what has repeatedly struck me in my intermittent contacts with Mormons. Already the language of the Book of Mormon has all the cadences of the King James Version of the Bible. With a few additions here and a few subtractions there, Mormons speak and act like Evangelicals—sort of like Southern Baptists with an expanded list of inerrant scriptures. What is more, they behave very much in accordance with the proverbial Protestant ethic, as is shown by health and social data from Utah—most strikingly in contrast with neighboring hedonistic Nevada. If you want to raise a healthy and socially successful family, move to Salt Lake City rather than Las Vegas, even if you have never heard of the Angel Moroni. As the recent California episode shows, their values and behaviors will place most Mormons on the conservative side of the culture wars—but no more so than Evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics or Orthodox Jews. These demographics already favor the Republicans. The nightmare of progressive Democrats is that these groups, along with secular refugees from political correctness, will coalesce in an enduring alliance devoted to a repeal of the Sixties.

  • Glen

    An interesting piece, Peter, i particularly liked your last line.

    By the way, the Mormon church isn’t important in Tongan politics. The Mormon church has a policy of avoiding local politics there, and Mormons tend to stay out of politics to a greater extent than other Christians in Tonga.

  • Gregory Taggart

    Mormons don’t believe in the innerancy of scripture.

  • Mary

    Are you saying that Nevada is a Catholic state? “What is more, they behave very much in accordance with the proverbial Protestant ethic, as is shown by health and social data from Utah—most strikingly in contrast with neighboring hedonistic Nevada.”

  • Dean M.

    The LDS Church has not “rejected polygamy.” It has discontinued its practice due to “the law of the land.” It still considers “plural marriage” a divine institution. When Utah wanted to become a state, it had to give up the practice but not the doctrine of “celestial marriage.”

    Also, Mormonism has a split personality due to its conflicting revelations. Polygamy is roundly condemned in The Book of Mormon. But Smith’s revelations (Doctrine & Covenants) overruled it along with introducing other strange things. Secret rites or ceremonies are also condemned in The Book of Mormon but overruled by Smith’s use of them.

    Romney would not sign the pledge to support traditional marriage, “a marriage between one man and one woman.” How could he and remain true to his church?

  • Maurice Enchel

    Dean M. – Romney didn’t sign because for reasons you’re obviously not familiar with. Look it up.

  • Ross V.

    An important difference between the Mormon faith and historic Christianity – that the author ommits – is the Mormon belief that their god was once a man and that by faithfully obedience they will eventually become gods in their own right with their own planet to populate with their own spirit children. That’s why Mormonism is not considered a christian faith.