What Mitt Romney Did to Mormonism
Note: This article is published as a part of a symposium hosted by Patheos' Mormon Channel, entitled "The Mormon Moment."
The morning after the election, after Mitt Romney had gone home to Boston, his church issued a statement congratulating Barack Obama for his victory, commending Romney for his effort, and urging all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to pray for the President and his administration. Masked, perhaps, behind the graciousness was a sigh of relief. The church has studiously attempted to avoid the media undertow following Romney's campaign, with only partial success. The spotlight of the present Mormon moment is certainly the most glaring that the church has faced in more than a century, and ceaseless questions about their theology and underwear have, frankly, worn many Mormons out.
But, read another way, this process has been good for Mormonism. The long arc of Mormonism's history has followed the trajectory of many new religions: from sectarian separatism to cultural engagement. But the process of integration is halting and painful for any religion, and Mormonism is no exception.
The church does not change nimbly; it is bureaucratic and deliberate, even lumbering, and though its recent leaders have emphasized neighborliness and optimism, they also have pointed out to their flocks that Mormons still wrestle with the sort of insularity that leads to blind spots and clannishness. But the Romney campaign has stepped on Mormonism's gas pedal. For the past year the church has been forced to grapple with issues at a pace far more rapid than it is accustomed to—and, for the most part, this has been salutary. Even if he didn't win the presidency, Mitt Romney, quite unintentionally, has helped his religion to grow up.
The attention Romney has attracted has forced the church to consider in new light issues that too often have gone unaddressed. In February of this year an elderly professor of religion at Brigham Young University repeated to a Washington Post reporter a number of ugly, racist theories as to why his church did not allow members of African descent into the Mormon priesthood until 1978. Most of them had been endorsed by church leaders in the 19th century, and some still circulate among grandparents and naïve Sunday school teachers. The leadership of the church has never repudiated them. But after the professor's words were reprinted in the Post, the church promptly issued a press release denouncing them. It was not the definitive rejection from the pulpit many Mormons hoped for, but it was a surprising step forward that would not have come had not reporters had reason to call a religion professor at BYU.
The church confronted a similar situation when Jews protested the practice of proxy baptism. Though several times the church had agreed not to baptize Holocaust victims by proxy, the controls erected to prevent members from doing so were lax until stiffer regulations were put in place after increased scrutiny earlier this year. Even the church's "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign emphasizes virtues that the church is not normally known for—diversity in ethnicity, lifestyle, and nationality. Though the campaign's depiction of Mormonism may a bit more aspirational than accurate, its existence demonstrates that the church has embraced a sense of cultural nuance, and has begun to think of itself as a participant in American cultural pluralism.
These developments have occurred in part because 2012's Mormon moment has brought attention to the diversity of voices within the faith. Mormonism is a deeply hierarchical organization, and Mormons are accustomed to hearing about their religion largely through official channels. But the media has sought out a diversity of Mormons for comment and analysis, and given prominence to Mormon feminists and Democrats and others alongside Mitt Romney and the official leaders of the church. Again, this defies the stereotype that even many Mormons possess about their own faith: that it is the province of political conservatism, culturally homogeneous, uniform, and dull. It also has gone a long way to helping many Mormons see their faith from a variety of perspectives.
The Romney campaign will leave behind it a Mormonism stronger than the one it found. American Mormons have a long history of persecution behind them, and contemporary Mormons seem sometimes to have retained the defensive and wary posture toward outsiders learned a few generations ago. But now the Mormons are in the national conversation, absorbing the lumps of our rough and tumble national conversation, gaining a thicker skin, and hopefully, making friends. Many Mormons are unused to talking about their faith with anybody but other Mormons and potential converts. Thanks to the Romney campaign, the church is learning to talk about faith in the language of the American public sphere. Mormonism is still a long way from losing its distinctiveness, but it may be learning the virtues of being bilingual.
Matthew Bowman is the author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (Random House, 2012). He teaches religion at Hampden Sydney College.