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Why 2012 was 'more than a Mormon moment'

Published: Monday, Dec. 31 2012 2:30 p.m. MST

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gather during Saturday morning session of 182nd Semiannual General Conference.

IRI

SALT LAKE CITY — By almost all accounts, 2012 was an extraordinary year for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in terms of media scrutiny and public awareness.

For a variety of reasons — most notably the American presidential campaign of lifelong Mormon Mitt Romney — the LDS Church was featured this year in numerous television specials, magazines, newspaper articles and radio programs around the world. Google reports that there have been more Internet searches including the word “Mormon” during 2012 than in any of the previous eight years.

Largely due to the presidential campaign, the media attention to all things Mormon was “unprecedented,” said Quin Monson, associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University.

“It went beyond the American press,” said Monson, whose research expertise focuses on religion and politics. “It was international.”

This suggests that the so-called “Mormon moment” was about more than presidential politics.

“The ‘Mormon moment’ has been bubbling in the air anyway,” said Matthew Bowman, visiting associate professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”

“The Romney campaign was the most visible element, but it wasn’t the only thing that has drawn public and media attention to the LDS Church in 2012,” Bowman continued. “For a number of years now there has been a rising interest in Mormonism in academia. You saw a surge of interest 10 years ago with the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. More recently there has been the ‘Book of Mormon’ musical on Broadway and a lot of other Mormon stuff on TV and other media. None of that was related to Romney.”

Michael Otterson, director of the LDS Church Public Affairs Department, wrote recently in his “On Faith blog for the Washington Post that “church leadership has never believed that this period is merely a ‘Mormon moment.’ They have much more of a long-range view.”

Earlier this year in the same venue Otterson said, “Treating this rising interest in the Mormon faith as a fleeting fad tends to shoehorn the subject into a confined timeframe and invite simplistic definitions and questionable conclusions.”

“After a 180-year history and 12 years of calling it a ‘moment,’” Otterson said, “we should re-examine the paradigm.”

Even so, Bowman said, the intensified media attention of the 2012 presidential campaign has been “a useful exercise.”

“It’s been really interesting to be in the center of all of this,” said Bowman, who was interviewed numerous times during the year because of his unique perspective as one who has studied Mormonism both as a scholar and as a member of the LDS Church.

“Most of the reporters who interviewed me didn’t ask if I was Mormon," he continued. "I think that’s a positive sign that people are willing to go to Mormons and ask questions, and take our answers as legitimate and scholarly. In that way, I think more and more we’re seeing Mormonism treated as a respectable religion and as a legitimate field of study.”

On the whole, Monson said, the media coverage of the LDS Church during 2012 was fair. While there was some coverage that he referred to as “snarky,” most of the coverage he saw at least attempted to be balanced and objective.

As a result, he says, 2012 has to be considered a good year for the church.

“Any time you’re given a chance to explain yourself, that’s a positive thing,” Monson said. “If you agree that the coverage in the media was mostly fair, it naturally follows that it’s a positive thing for the church.”

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