Mormons Feeling Stung By Their ‘Moment’

Suzanne Sataline, the Wall Street Journal’s crack religion reporter, filed a front page piece today in the Journal titled “Mormons Dismayed by Harsh Spotlight.” Although I spoke with Ms. Sataline several times over the writing of her piece (and am lightly quoted near the end), I was still surprised at the depth, breadth, and understanding of Mormonism it managed so gracefully. Mormons licking their wounds this morning as they contemplate the beating their religion took over the last year may find some small consolation in this sympathetic piece.

The consensus among those quoted in the piece, from pollsters to professors to low-level Mormon bloggers is that the GOP primary revealed a surprising depth of suspicion toward Mormons held by many people across the country (semi-famous Mormon Ken Jennings is the exception). No one says (as no one credibly could) that anti-Mormonism was the sole cause of Romney’s decline, but it seems that most agree his religion was a major factor.

Whether Romney was done in by his religion is an important question for the American polity, as a measure of American tolerance and progress, as well as an analytical tool for future campaigns. But for Mormons, the question is much more personal. It’s a means of figuring out whether this group of people is accepted as fully American. While most Mormons have long been comfortable assuming that designation, they now have good reason to question it. What stings is how surprising that conclusion is for some:

“I don’t think that any of us had any idea how much anti-Mormon stuff was out there,” said Armand Mauss, a Mormon sociologist who has written extensively about church culture, in an interview last week. “The Romney campaign has given the church a wake-up call. There is the equivalent of anti-Semitism still out there.”

***

“It seems like it’s been open season on Mormons,” says Marvin Perkins, a Los Angeles Mormon Church member who lectures about the history of blacks in the church.

***

“People were haranguing us on the Internet,” Mr. Ballard said in an interview.

***

“There will be a long-term consequence in the Mormon church,” says Mr. Mauss, the Mormon sociologist. “I think there is going to be a wholesale reconsideration with how Mormons should deal with the latent and overt anti-Mormon propaganda. I don’t think the Mormons are ever again going to sorrowfully turn away and close the door and just keep out of the fray.”

Ms. Sataline’s in-depth piece is required reading for anyone wondering about the consequences of religious politicking in America.

Meanwhile, the Salt Lake Tribune posted a similar piece today, by its own excellent religion reporter, Peggy Fletcher Stack, which carried similar observations:

Most thought publicity for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whether positive or negative, would be a good thing. With optimistic naiveté, many believed the more people knew of Mormonism, the more Latter-day Saints would be accepted into mainstream America, legitimate players on the national stage.

That didn’t happen. Instead, some said, Romney’s failed campaign revealed what many Americans really think about Mormons. It forced Latter-day Saints to acknowledge that they don’t just belong to another American denomination.

“We have to live with the fact that a lot of people think our beliefs are strange,” said LDS historian Richard Bushman, the professor emeritus at Columbia University who helped explain Mormonism to a skeptical public. “Mormons have never had so much exposure as we have in the last year, so much genuine curiosity on the part of high-level media. I don’t think we’ll ever be the same.”

While I agree that many Mormons feel a bit less secure in their place in public life today, I disagree that the net effect of this campaign has been negative for the LDS Church. It has certainly had the effect of driving members of the faith to a better, more nuanced understanding of their doctrines and history, and in many cases inspired them to greater advocacy of their beliefs. Further, while some have expressed disappointment that the Mormon question remains yet to be answered some time in the future, it seems clear that the next person on whom that burden rests will have a somewhat easier test to pass than Mitt Romney did. Just as the nation asks its toughest questions of a candidate in his first run and then moves to a different narrative the second time around, Mormons can probably expect slightly less obsessive focus the next time they see one of their own in the public eye.

Assuming we ever see another Mormon with sufficient temerity to try such a thing.