Books on Mormons: LDS, non-LDS authors try to explain the faith

Published: Sunday, Sept. 16 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

Best-selling author Stephen Mansfield can see it coming.

"We're going to have a collision on Mormonism," said Mansfield, who has just published "The Mormonizing of America" through Worthy Publishing. The book chronicles what he calls the "unprecedented leap forward" The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken during recent years in terms of public acceptance.

Other authors – including Sen. Orrin Hatch, Lee Trepanier and Lynita K. Newswander, Anthony Sweat and Ryan Cragun and Rick Phillips – have similarly noted the rising profile of Mormonism in the public square. Some, like Mansfield, are not LDS but are interested in the phenomenon from a sociological and/or political perspective. Others, like Sen. Hatch, are devotedly LDS and want to explain their church or defend it against perceived attacks from the outside. And others, like Cragun and Phillips, are "former Mormons" who feel they are uniquely qualified to explain the church and its doctrine, policies and practices.

In every case, these authors have recently published books that seem to be perfectly positioned to take advantage of the "Mormon moment" that has existed for most of the past two years and was so clearly manifest during the recent Republican and Democratic national conventions. Ostensibly, these books are all intended to help people better understand the LDS Church, its teachings, policies and practices, and in some cases, how that faith background might impact a certain candidate for the presidency of the United States.

For his part, Mansfield said he began to see the "collision" to which he referred taking shape several years ago when he was working on a book about Mormonism.

"I do a lot of work in government and diplomatic areas, and I came to understand how valued BYU graduates are in intelligence services, Foreign Service, things like that," said the author of the best-selling "The Faith of George W. Bush" and "The Faith of Barack Obama." "This wasn't something I read or heard, it was something I saw. A recruiter told me, 'Given the choice, I would prefer a BYU graduate.' I began to pay attention to that."

And the more attention he paid, the more he became fascinated by it.

"It became clear to me that we are headed for some kind of collision between the popular acceptance of Mormonism and the vetting of Mormon doctrine," Mansfield said. "As Mormonism becomes larger and more influential, how will people respond to Mormon beliefs and doctrines as they are publicly scrutinized? That's what fascinates me."

Which is why he chose to write "The Mormonizing of America" instead of continuing his literary series with something like "The Faith of Mitt Romney."

"I thought that the story of Bush at the time was bigger than the story of evangelicals and the 'religious right' at that time," he said during an interview with Religion News Service. "I thought the story of Obama personally was bigger than the story of the 'religious left' that he was sort of the champion of. But in this case I think that the story of the Mormon moment or this Mormon ascent is a bigger story than Mitt Romney.

"There's something broader going on and he's not so much the champion of the movement, maybe just at the vanguard of it," Mansfield said.

That movement is also what interested Trepanier and Newswander – political science professors at different universities who share an academic interest in the relationship of Mormon culture to American civilization – to join forces to write "LDS in the USA: Mormonism and the Making of the American Dream."

"The role of Mormonism in America has been simultaneously both exaggerated and undervalued," write the authors in their introduction to the book. "Mormons have played a substantial role in the shaping of the social, cultural, political and religious makeup of the United States, a role that is neither conspiratorial nor marginal and that has not been properly acknowledged in the academy or by the general public."

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