Note: This article is published as a part of a symposium hosted by Patheos' Mormon Channel, entitled "The Mormon Moment."
While it may have escaped widespread notice, a news item this week heralded a potentially crucial side effect of the "Mormon Moment": its effects on the perceptions of an international audience about the faith. In Russia, young members of the ruling United Russia Party have expressed a growing fear that Latter-day Saints are working as operatives of the U.S. government.
Over half the membership of the LDS Church lives outside the United States, although its leadership is based in Salt Lake City. Yet the media coverage of the LDS Church during the U.S. Presidential election all but ignored Mormonism outside this country, focusing instead on conflicts (or the lack thereof) with other U.S. churches. Mormons themselves, and particularly Republican Mormons, in an understandable effort to justify the viability of Mitt Romney as a candidate for the presidency, echoed this drumbeat of the Americanness of the Mormon faith.
Ironically, this focus on national loyalty as an essential component of Mormonism may well have set back the equally ardent missionary efforts of the LDS Church abroad, especially in places where the equation of the faith with U.S. nationalism may not be considered value added. It is hardly a secret that returned missionaries, with their language skills and firmly embedded work ethic, make promising candidates for the Foreign Service and the CIA. Combine this with what outsiders see as an authoritarian institutional structure and a penchant for secrecy, and one has a recipe for political queasiness abroad. Hence the suspicion of Russia and perhaps other governments about what is being imported into their nation-states alongside the Book of Mormon and strict health codes.
The LDS Church, in ways unique to its emergence in this country, has always toed a line between suspicions of political disloyalty and hyper-patriotism. The church gained members abroad in the 19th century by proclaiming their oppression at the hands of an overweening U.S. government: they called on colonial subjects and persecuted peoples to join their cause in building a kingdom based on divine—rather than human—laws. By the mid-20th century, Mormons emphasized their fealty to the U.S. government, so much so that they came under suspicion from those worried about the ambitions of the U.S. in other countries. In Chile in the 1980s, numerous LDS meetinghouses were targeted for bombings because anti-Pinochet protestors assumed they were CIA fronts. Thus, very different narratives of political belonging have served the faith well at different points in time and in different contexts.
In this regard, Mormons are held to a standard that Protestant churches are rarely obligated to meet: few question the ability of evangelicals, for example, to serve the needs of both national interest and international outreach. One can be an ardent patriot and a foreign missionary without automatically attracting accusations of espionage. For better or worse, the LDS Church faces the continuing challenge of asserting its domestic loyalties in a patriotic era without having clean-cut, white-shirted missionary dyads set off alarms within jittery foreign governments.
Laurie Maffly-Kipp has been at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1989. She is professor and chair of the Religious Studies department and holds an adjunct appointment in the American Studies Curriculum, and also serves as the associate director at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at UNC. Her most recent book is Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories (Belknap, 2010). She is currently working on a book on Mormonism.