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