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The Mormon Moment or the Mormon Question?

Craig L. Foster

Well, over a week has passed since the presidential elections and a number of us have had more than enough to say about the elections, potential  fall out, continuing reverberations and what’s next. Some comments have been insightful, others snarky (certainly on my part and more than once), and still others powerfully emotional.

Much has been said about Mitt Romney’s presidential quest being the capstone or culmination of the so-called Mormon Moment in which we Latter-day Saints have popped up everywhere in political and pop-culture, thus making non-Mormons wonder if they have been invaded by a multitude of Mormons. And no wonder.  We have the vulgar, unquestionably blasphemous audacity of “The Book of Mormon Musical” juxtaposed by the simple, rather imaginative “I’m a Mormon” campaign that has spread across America reminding people that Mormons are no longer just a small sect in the Intermountain West.

Now that Romney’s presidential campaign has ended in defeat, questions have arisen as to whether or not this is the end of the Mormon Moment. I personally do not think it is. I believe the Mormon Moment will continue as the LDS Church continues to grow and gains a greater presence on the American stage. I see both pros and cons to a continuing Mormon Moment but  will leave those for another time.

Instead, I would like to discuss the heart of my little essay. In the midst of the Mormon Moment the Mormon Question still lurked in the background, every so often raising its ugly head. The Mormon Question is:  Can a Mormon be trusted to be president of the United States? Back in 1960 John F. Kennedy finally put the Catholic Question to rest with his election to the presidency. While other Mormons have run for president of the United States, Mitt Romney came the closest to achieving that goal and was within reach of ending the Mormon Question but that task now remains for a future Mormon presidential candidate.

On a personal note, because I authored A Different God? Mitt Romney, the Religious Right and the Mormon Question (2008) and co-authored The Mormon Quest for the Presidency: From Joseph Smith to Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman (2011), I have carefully followed the presidential campaigns, paying special attention to the role religion played. In some ways, it was a very long journey with both positive and negative experiences as I encountered both good and bad media representations of Mormonism. In the middle of all of the reflections and recriminations regarding the recent elections, I realized, first as a passing thought and then as a strong feeling of relief and perhaps a little bit of “what if” – at least I won’t be wallowing through the compost of anti-Mormonism that would have surely followed Mitt Romney through his entire presidency.  In spite of some Mormons and non-Mormons trumpeting the lack of religion in the recent campaigns, there was, nonetheless, a definite undercurrent of anti-Mormonism. While both the Obama and Romney campaigns refrained from blatantly playing the religion card on each other, there were plenty of others willing to do so.

From the malevolent mocking of Bill Maher and the ranting ridicule of Lawrence O’Donnell to the warnings of cultism and theological theatrics of reverends like Robert Jeffress, Joel McDurmon and the unctuous Bill Keller, there have been too many too willing to attack, belittle, complain about and make fun of Mormon doctrine, history and culture. For well over a year now I have followed, collected and commented on the almost daily discussion of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. While there have certainly been positive, almost effusively complimentary stories, as well as a great number of even-handed analyses, there have also been a host of hateful, mean-spirited, bigoted articles, blogs, rants, and comments in all forms of media.

There have been a multitude of jokes and snide comments that relied on tired clichéd stereotypes.  Mormon magic underwear, polygamy, Mormons refraining from drinking, the temple ceremony, Kolob, and a number of other doctrines were routinely brought up. There were also numerous reminders of when Blacks did not hold the priesthood (in spite of that policy being changed 34 years ago) and about the Mountain Meadows Massacre ( which took place 155 years ago). But what the heck, the LDS Church has not officially practiced plural marriage (polygamy) for over 120 years and I cannot tell you how many articles, blogs, online comments and tweets I saw mentioning Mitt Romney’s polygamous ancestors and then suggesting there would be in the White House a First Lady, Second Lady, Third Lady, etc.

Now I will be the first to admit there are a number of different (oh who’s fooling whom), downright strange things about Mormonism.  LDS temple garments are different but certainly not alone in the realm of religious clothing and adornment. Many religions have clothing, jewelry, hair and facial hair styles they consider sacred representations of their faith. The fact that our sacred clothing happens to be undergarments really seems to strike the juvenile lurking in every critic who deep down must have a naughty preoccupation with knickers.

And then there’s polygamy. Unlike a number of modern Latter-day Saints, I do not have any discomfort about our polygamous past. I wouldn’t be here if it were not for my great-grandfather’s polygamous marriages so I certainly am not going to blush, hem and haw or try to dodge the topic of plural wives. Still, while some comments were actually amusing, most were mean, rude, salacious and vulgar. This was no good-natured ribbing.  Instead,  there was just under the surface, and quite often not even hidden, hatred and bitter enmity toward Mormons and their religion. After the umpteenth time of someone attacking the character of Joseph Smith through insinuations of immorality and sexual perversion, as well as suggestions Mormon men are constantly having sex with an army of women, sometimes all at once, it gets old.

I could go on, but I think I have made my point. Yes, Mormonism is weird. But Mormonism is not alone in the “strange beliefs/weird practices” category. Every religion has its doctrines and practices that are amusing and even bizarre to outsiders. I find the doctrine of transubstantiation to be rather strange, the idea of sola scriptura to be utterly ridiculous, and don’t even get me started on the concept of the Trinity. Still, I recognize these are strongly and dearly held beliefs for many and try to respect them as such in spite of my own disbelief.

I don’t believe in the previously mentioned doctrines but I have no problem with whoever wants to believe those doctrines. Furthermore, people’s religious beliefs have not stopped me from supporting them for political office if I agree with their political positions and have respect for how they lead their lives. Here in Mormon-dominated Utah I have supported and campaigned for a Buddhist who I feel makes an excellent legislator. I don’t care about his Buddhism other than how it has helped his humanity. I have, over the years, voted for and supported not only Mormons and the aforementioned Buddhist, but also some Armenian Orthodox, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, and Methodist candidates as well as a number of other candidates where I have no idea what their religious beliefs are.  I have, more than once, been left wondering why people cannot be more accepting of other religious beliefs. We are not giving up on our own beliefs when we are tolerant of others’ outlook on the world.

Mitt Romney’s first run for the presidency was a painfully rude awakening for many Latter-day Saints about the depth of antipathy a good number of Americans have toward Mormons and Mormonism. I still remember one Utah-born-and-raised Mormon looking at me with a shell-shocked expression near the end of Romney’s first run and saying, “I never knew so many people hated us.” The treatment of Romney’s religion reinforced for many Latter-day Saints that “their religion is misunderstood . . . they’re discriminated against . . . [and that] they don’t think Mormonism is part of mainstream society.”[1] As one writer explained near the beginning of this recent campaign cycle, “Clearly this is a population that sees itself as outsiders looking in.”[2] Happily enough, the second run was not as brutal as the first campaign and most Latter-day Saints had a better experience. Nevertheless, there was still that underlying anti-Mormon bigotry that continues to beg the Mormon Question.

Will the Mormon Question finally be laid to rest? I have absolutely no doubt. The Mormon Moment will continue because it is impossible to stop forward momentum. Some events may slow it down, but if persecution, an extermination order, being driven from the boundaries of the United States into the Rocky Mountains, Constitutionally-questionable restrictive laws, disenfranchisement, and imprisonment has not stopped Mormonism, certainly failed political campaigns and jokes about Mormon underwear and polygamy will not stop us now.

When will the Mormon Question finally be answered by electing a Mormon president? I don’t know and am not even sure it will be in my lifetime. Only time will tell. By then, will there be less animosity and more acceptance? Will Mormonism still be perceived as a cult (rich and powerful but still a cult) on the fringes of American society or will it have become even more mainstreamed? Again, only time will tell. And then, either before or after the Mormon Question is settled, Americans will still face the Buddhist Question, the Muslim Question, the . . . shall I go on?

[1] Michael Landsberg, “Mormons feel rooted and happy, but marginalized, poll finds.”

[2] Daniel Burke, “Study portrays Mormons as outsiders looking in,” The Washington Post, 12 January 2012, (accessed: 12 January 2012).

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