For its 2011 annual retrospective, Time magazine named Mormonism the Religion of the Year, accompanied with an obligatory photo from the Book of Mormon Musical. The distinction isn't offered every year, but in light of the musical, two presidential candidates and the rise of Glenn Beck — funny no one ever mentions Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in these lists — the editors made an exception.
The Time write-up itself was notably upbeat.
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has always been the religion of the future — demographically, organizationally, fervently. Well, the future is now," the blurb began. After running through the highlights, it concluded, "Mormon visibility has helped dispel some stunning bits of ignorance. … By being part of the social and political conversation, this original, innately American religion has become even more a part of the mainstream American fabric."
That mainstreaming was in evidence in two New York Times pieces on pop culture icons. In November, the paper did a profile of Ryan Raddon, a $200,000-a-club DJ with a large and fanatical nationwide following — who, oddly, has never tried alcohol or drugs: "The kids at Roseland may be surprised to learn that their beatmaster is the father of three small children. And that he doesn't drink. And that he's a devout Mormon who still goes to church in San Clemente, Calif., and counts choir practice among his music influences."
Then in December, the Times tracked down a Mormon high school student, attended seminary with him, and featured a photo of him with his seminary class. The student's name is Jabari Parker, and he happens to be the hottest high school basketball player in the country. Again, the coverage expresses understated admiration: "Jabari merges Mormon-taught humility with an athlete's lottery-pick potential. 'Basketball is not who I am; it's what I do,' he said. … In keeping with Mormon custom, Jabari does not smoke or drink and he shuns caffeine. He has a self-imposed curfew on road trips. 'Jabari disciplined himself at a very young age,' said his mother, Lola."
These two vignettes capture an emerging consensus in mainstream media coverage of Mormons and the LDS Church. Hostility endures, but elite anti-Mormon attack dogs like Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens now seem more exceptions than the rule. Pop culture figures like Parker, Raddon, and rock star Brandon Flowers draw interest in one direction, even as observers of politics and business reach to explain what they consider the outsized role that Mormons play business and government. The tone that percolates through this coverage is grudging admiration for the powerful culture that produces character and accomplishment, combined with a lingering bemusement at seemingly odd beliefs.
Typical of this dual tone of admiration and bemusement was Walter Kirn's Newsweek piece in June 2011, when he included an "isn't that weird" checklist but urged the reader to note that Mormonism's uncanny academic and business success rate "centers on the distinctive values and characteristics that have come to define Mormons outside the church walls — in their communities, in their careers and in the culture at large." Kirn concluded, "the distinctiveness of the Mormons is actually the secret of their success."
In March The Economist sounded the same theme, noting that Mormonism makes claims "that seem ambitious in the modern world." However, the editors noted, "in practical matters Mormonism seems well adapted to the modern world," noting their influence at Harvard Business School, Wall Street, the Central Intelligence Agency and elsewhere. The article concluded, "For this, Mormons may have their austere religious practice to thank," adding that the missionary "experience — and perhaps the need to cope with repeated ridicule — seems to make many Mormons not only cosmopolitan but also resilient."
This past summer Business Week also ran an article titled "God's MBAs: Why Mormon Missions Produce Leaders," detailing how missions shaped the lives not just of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, but also a long list of prominent business leaders.
Much of the copy on Mormonism centers on individualistic success, with comparatively little focused on a tight-knit and mutually supportive social system. In February, 2011, Biola University Professor John Mark Reynolds partly remedied this in the Washington Post "On Faith" Blog. Reynolds focused in part on the LDS welfare system, including cases he had seen where non-LDS families were helped. He concluded, "The commendable community found in Mormonism should be imitated not attacked."
And yet, while Reynolds saw the connection between tight community and individual achievement, he could not resist returning to worldly success. "Should Americans be concerned?" he asked. His answer is an emphatic no, but he added, "those of us who are not Mormon should be depressed that such a small group has outworked, outthought, and outhustled us. Mormon success should spur traditional Christians, who outnumber Mormons by tens of millions, to do better."
Eric Schulzke is the director of the Apollo 13 Project, a nonprofit prisoner reentry initiative based at Utah Valley University. He can be reached at eric(at)a13.org.