Fall 2012, Vol. 14, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog
on religion and politics 


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Table of Contents   

From the Editor:
Democrats Find Their Inner None

The Saints Come Marching In

I am a Mormon?

How Mormons and Evangelicals Became Republicans

Rowan Williams Lays Down His Burden

Honey, I’m Shrinking the Church

The Struggle to Keep Hospitals Catholic

“Religious liberty” in Court

The Democrats Dump God

Ayn No Way: Paul Ryan’s Problem

Netanyahu’s Anti-Obama Campaign

Varieties of Dylan’s Religious Experience






The Saints Come Marching In
by Jan Shipps 

Did the defeat of Mitt Romney signal that the much trumpeted “Mormon Moment” had come to an end, as countless articles around the country claimed? If so, it was the end of a moment of media attention that had lasted for over a decade.

There were a couple of notable Mormon media moments leading up to the 21st century. In 1980, Mormons far and wide—including groups headquartered in places other than Salt Lake City—celebrated the 150th anniversary of the founding of the faith and received considerable print coverage for doing so.

Seventeen years later, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints celebrated the 150th anniversary of their pioneer trek from Illinois to the Great Basin by replicating the journey, some travelling in ox-drawn prairie schooners and others pulling hand-carts from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Salt Lake City. This, too, was widely covered in the news media.

But if both of these sesquicentennial celebrations were occasions for Mormons, they were just human interest stories for everyone else. By contrast, the events successively designated as Mormon moments in the 21st century have been notable because they were important to lots of non-Mormons as well.

The 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games began generating stories about the Mormon locale in 2001, including a Newsweek cover story and a major article in USA Today. In 2002, long take-outs in Time and the New Yorker (18 pages by Lawrence Wright) appeared, as well as innumerable stories in the international media. 

Coverage of the Games themselves included countless descriptions of Mormonism’s center place and the welcome received by visitors. More than 2,650 accredited members of the press (including 650 photojournalists) from 59 countries were on site to recount the Salt Lake story as well as the sports contests.

Although Olympics wrap-ups might have brought this “moment” to a close, stories about the Saints did not disappear, especially in the U.S. media.

Almost as soon as the Games were over, a nasty and prolonged fight between the LDS church and the city erupted over whether a block of Main Street could be closed to allow a connection between Temple Square and the historic Joseph Smith Building that would tie together the church’s huge two-city-block campus. In the end, the church won, but its public announcement that the area was public space was undercut by its headline-making refusal to allow gay men to kiss each other in the shadow of the Salt Lake Temple.

Not long afterwards, the church-owned Deseret News changed from being an evening to a morning newspaper, apparently in order to compete with the Salt Lake Tribune, whose independent (non-Mormon) voice had been present throughout the Mormon culture region since it was founded in 1871.

Both stories were closely followed by newspapers throughout the West and gained the attention of the national media as well. Meanwhile, the country became fascinated, as it had been in the 19th century, with baroque tales of Mormon polygamy.

In June of 2002, the kidnapping of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart from her family’s Salt Lake City home became a national story that lasted for years. Her abduction and sexual abuse by a couple who forced her to become a second “wife” was the subject of books and a TV movie.

No less sensational was the coverage of Warren Jeffs, head of the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), who was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list in 2006 and convicted of two counts of rape in 2007. The following year, Texas law enforcement officers raided an FLDS ranch near Eldorado. National coverage was noteworthy for a People magazine cover story on the children who were taken from their mothers by Texas welfare authorities—and who were eventually returned to them by court order.

Alongside the continuous front-page polygamy news, Americans could entertain themselves by watching Big Love, the TV series about a fundamentalist Mormon man and his three wives that began airing on HBO in 2006. When the show concluded its run in 2011 it had been joined by a polygamy reality show, Sister Wives, which started its fourth season in November.

To be sure, the practice of “plural marriage” has long since been outlawed by the LDS church. Nonetheless, the prominence of polygamy stories about fringe Mormon communities and families could not but keep mainstream Mormonism itself is the public eye.

Concurrently, Mormonism was in the news on two political fronts, as interest began to build about the Mormon hierarchy’s opposition to same-sex marriage, and Mitt Romney’s potential presidential candidacy. By 2007-8, both of these matters would come together to generate enough media interest to create talk of another Mormon moment. 

As early as September 2005, the Washington Monthly’s Amy Sullivan wrote about “Mitt Romney’s Evangelical Problem,” and this focus on how evangelicals would respond to a Mormon running for the White House continued until he dropped out of the race in 2008. Indeed, as indicated in these pages (John C. Green and Mark Silk, “No Saints Need Apply,” Winter 2009), Romney’s inability to win the votes of evangelicals did cost him the GOP nomination that year. 

Even after Romney’s departure from the scene, however, Mormonism remained in the media spotlight because of the LDS church’s extraordinary support for California’s Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that countermanded a state Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the Golden State.

In February of 2011, “The Book of Mormon,” an irreverent musical by the creators of Comedy Central’s “South Park,” began burning up the boards on Broadway. A few months later, the LDS church launched its elaborate “I Am a Mormon” advertising campaign in an effort to challenge the image of the Mormons as cookie-cutter Saints. (See accompanying article by Shannon Smith.)

These plus the twin candidacies of Mitt Romney and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination led to more stories about yet another Mormon moment. And of course, the eventual capture of the nomination by Romney ushered in what would have been the penultimate Mormon moment had Romney actually been elected to the highest office in the land.

 But he wasn’t. And so the Mormon mega-moment has, perhaps, finally come to an end. What, after more than 10 years, has it achieved?

In all likelihood, the tradition has made it far enough into mainstream culture that Americans now know as much about Mormonism as they know about Judaism. In fact, now that Mormons are no longer so concentrated in the neighborhood of Utah and that there are more of them than Jews, the chance of meeting a real live Mormon may be almost as great as meeting a Jew.

At the same time, a distinction must be made between becoming a part of mainstream culture and becoming a part of mainstream religion. On October 11, Romney interrupted his campaigning—if not his campaign—to pay a visit to the aged Billy Graham and his son and heir Franklin, CEO and president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). 

After a cordial prayer-and-photo-op, the elder Graham was quoted as praising Romney’s “values and strong moral convictions” and all but endorsed the GOP candidate: “I hope millions of Americans will join me in praying for our nation and to vote for candidates who will support the biblical definition of marriage, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms.”

The following Tuesday, the reference to Mormonism as a cult was removed from the BGEA website—a fact that, once noted, was widely reported. For its part, Christianity Today posted a balanced “roundup of expert views” in which several influential evangelicals approved of the action. But there was evangelical consternation as well.

“It is unfortunate that the BGEA chose to remove the cult designation describing Mormonism this week,” said Robert Jeffress, pastor of Dallas’ First Baptist Church. “It will appear to the world that the Graham organization has chosen political expediency over spiritual conviction. It is possible to endorse Mitt Romney, as I have done, and yet maintain that Mormonism is a false religion that leads people away from the one true God.”

Sociologically, a cult is a faith tradition that develops after a gathering of individuals accepts new truth claims. Christianity started as a cult, as did Islam, as did Mormonism. But when a cult becomes a culture, it is no longer a cult. And when all was said and done, the evangelicals did turn out and vote for the Mormon candidate in large numbers. There just weren’t enough of them to overcome the Democrat on the other side.

Now that the election is over, it is fair to say that some Mormons might have preferred to remain “unspotted from the world.” It is also fair to say that many non-Mormons might have preferred not to welcome them into the cultural mainstream, much less the religious one.

But like it or not, here they are. Notwithstanding Mitt Romney’s defeat, there is no turning back.


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