The Mormon Moment(um)?
Note: This article is published as a part of a symposium hosted by Patheos' Mormon Channel, entitled "The Mormon Moment."
The election is over and Mitt Romney lost. One of my neighbors has been in a genuine depressed funk for a week and is only starting to come out of it. From what I hear, she's not alone. There are other people like her who see Obama's win as a doomsday sign or something. Most U.S. Mormons, however, are more Stoic about his loss, and (of course) some, approximately 25 percent, voted for Obama and aren't at all displeased.
But what does this mean about "the Mormon moment," the recent, widespread curiosity about Mormons and things Mormon? (The last time there was that kind of press attention, national and international, focused on us, it was mostly unwanted.) Are we the geeky guy who found a way to get girls' interest and, consequently, thought he would get a date for prom but, now that he didn't, with good reason worries that interest is going to flag? Or are we the girl who finally grew into her aspirations and, though she didn't get the date she was expecting, is going to continue to get boys' interest?
My prediction is that we are the guy, not the girl. Because of Huntsman's and Romney's runs for the Republican nomination and the U.S. presidency, a lot of people were interested in Mormons and Mormon ideas. But I'm pleased if that was our fifteen minutes and now we can get on about our business as before.
It is, after all, true that as a general rule we are good citizens and nice people and all of the other things that we like to hear people say about us. People saw in the Romneys and Huntsmans faithful marriage partners in long marriages with good families, talented, smart people who believe in service. Nevertheless, in spite of such things, we also don't quite fit in, socially, politically, or theologically.
Stardom isn't good for individuals. I suspect that it is no better for communities or religions. Media attention causes people to begin to wonder about their public appearance and to try to manipulate the impression that others have of them. They forget who they are as they see themselves through the carnival mirror of the press. Sometimes they try too hard to be what people want them to be. Other times they try too hard to be shocking or different, which is also what people want them to be. Better not to have the attention.
But that's not to say we can't capitalize on this few months' flirtation.
Perhaps now, for example, fewer people will confuse Mormons, Mennonites, Muslims, and other religions that start with "m"—as well as the Amish; I can start wearing my overalls again.
Some who insisted that Mormonism is a cult have at least had second thoughts about that and perhaps have changed their minds. We ought to reach out to them. We ought to give them reasons to continue their newfound acceptance, however tentative it may be.
Some knew nothing about Mormonism and have learned both that we are less strange than they thought and yet, in other ways, perhaps even stranger. They've gone from imputing strange beliefs about super underwear to us to recognizing that Mormon theology is complex, interesting, and very different than traditional Christian theology. We can continue our discussions of belief to the profit of both sides.
Others have discovered that we aren't the monolith that we at first appeared to be. We aren't all white, probably not most of us. We aren't all North American, not even most of us. American Mormons aren't all politically conservative, though a majority appear to be. Yet Mormons outside of North American are often members of parties that would be considerably to the left of center in the U.S.
Knowing that we aren't all the same is good for the rest of America and the world. It may be especially good for us. Too often we believe our own stereotype.
Because of the Mormon moment, academics have begun to take Mormonism seriously. That seemed to be happening even before the Mormon moment, but there's no question that the moment added to academic interest in Mormonism. We should encourage these investigations into who we are theologically, historically, and sociologically.
Though the mirror of the academy can also be distorting, presumably it is less so than that of the mass media. As the LDS Church's publications of the Joseph Smith papers shows, an academic mirror that has integrity will help us understand ourselves better. It will give our faith a firmer ground.
Those outside the ivory tower often discovered that they have friends, neighbors, and co-workers whom they didn't know to be Mormon. Perhaps those Mormons with less missionary zeal who have been hiding in plain sight can now be themselves without fear of being thought a zealot. Perhaps by discovering these previously hidden Mormons those who feared a Mormon president will discover that there is less to fear than they thought.
Surely, and thankfully, the Mormon moment has passed or is passing. Hopefully, the Mormon momentum has not.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.