For my academic research, I have read hundreds of articles about Mormonism and, especially, the campaigns of Gov. Mitt Romney and Mormonism.
It included scores of stories talking about how Romney is the first Mormon to win a nomination — and would become the first Mormon president.
Despite the interest of the news media in that narrative, I’ve never heard a Latter-day Saint talk about the campaign that way.
I don’t find my Latter-day Saint friends rejoicing in the fact that “the first Mormon” was nominated — as though being accepted by the American mainstream is a source of validation.
I sense that most American Latter-day Saints feel as I do, that we are fully American. There is no need for some kind of validation from a national mainstream. Gov. Romney won the nomination. He won and we can vote for him if we think he has the best ideas and character to be president.
Of course, many Latter-day Saints will vote for Gov. Romney and likely his religion will create a great affinity for that vote.
It’s just that I perceive we don’t think of the need for celebrating this as an important first.
For us, the new Brigham City Temple, the announcement of reduced missionary ages and the growth of the church generally, these are what pass for celebratory news here.
But it is worth pausing a minute to ponder what this election — regardless of who wins — represents for the United States and for the Latter-day Saint people.
A little more than 100 years ago, the church faced remarkable persecution. Sen. Reed Smoot, an apostle, was elected to the U.S. Senate, but before the Senate allowed him to take his seat, there were years of exhaustive and exhausting hearings. President Joseph F. Smith went to Washington and answered intrusive questions from angry, sometimes openly bigoted senators.
A few years before that, Latter-day Saints faced the full wrath of the U.S. government as the government threatened to take the church’s property as some early Saints practiced plural marriage.
We Latter-day Saints retell the story of church debt during the presidency of Lorenzo Snow and how tithes saved the church. All of that was happening in the 1890s and early 20th century. The pressure was intense and immense.
A couple of instances from my research taught me how bad it was for the Saints 100 years ago in the nation’s esteem. I once picked up a copy of Alfred Henry Lewis’s supposed exposé in the old Cosmopolitan magazine the he titled "A Viper on the Hearth."
Lewis wrote that Latter-day Saints, through their business interests, could take over the United States in a few decades. Hand-crafted images in the magazine portrayed then church President Joseph F. Smith in kingly robes taking obeisance from those holding much of the nation’s money. Lewis wrote, “Wall and Broad Street can be brought to their knees at a word from prophet Smith.” Lewis advocated destruction of Mormonism: “Take my last warning. You, as a good American, should watch narrowly the Mormon Church. It is a national cancer and if you would have the nation live, you must set about its cure.”
A second instance was when I read some of Mark Twain’s "Roughing It." Twain, usually very funny, wrote, “With the gushing self-sufficiency of youth I was feverish to plunge in headlong and achieve a great reform here [of ending polygamy] — until I saw the Mormon women. Then I was touched. My heart was wiser than my head. It warmed toward these poor, ungainly and pathetically ‘homely’ creatures, and as I turned to hide the generous moisture in my eyes, I said, ‘No — the man that marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind, not their harsh censure — and the man that marries sixty of them has done a deed of open-handed generosity so sublime that the nations should stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence.’”
These anecdotes demonstrate that most news organizations misunderstood us, and much in popular fiction — often written by the most famous writers of the time — denigrated us.
But three generations of prophetic leadership, of hard work, of being true to our religion has effected a generous change in the national psyche. Sure, people still sometimes mock, but much of the press is fair and generous. And we tell our own story well, too.
Whether or not Mitt Romney wins the election, whether or not his winning is a good thing for the country, it is worth noting how far the nation has come in respect to this remarkable religion.
In the Doctrine and Covenants, there is a verse about bringing the church out of obscurity. I used to think that obscurity meant little more than simple visibility. Now, I believe it comprises something even more. In my study of Mormons and the media, I have observed that Latter-day Saints have always been a visible curiousity in the press — since before the church even started — but one always hidden by falsity and innuendo. What happened was that the coverage obscured what it was we really believe — the way a dirty window obscures a rich panorama.
But in recent years, the windows have opened. Latter-day Saints are known increasingly for who they really are. The coverage in recent years, while imperfect, is increasingly accurate. This election, win or lose for Gov. Romney, is a cause for celebration. Latter-day Saints are coming out of obscurity and darkness.
And that's a joyful thing.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.
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