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. —Michael Otterson, LDS Church Public Affairs Department
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.”
What particularly impressed Monson this year was a willingness on the part of the institutional church to get involved in the discussion — at least, more than it has in the past.
“They found new ways to engage,” he said. “They answered questions about the church and its beliefs and doctrines, and then sent a lot of political questions to professors at BYU.”
Because of the official LDS policy of political neutrality, church officials were “very, very hands off” when it came to engaging in overtly political discussions, Monson said — “almost to a fault.”
“Some of the reporters who ended up in my box were quite irritated,” he said. “But the church was very, very careful to not be perceived as inappropriately helping the Romney campaign in any way. They probably lost some opportunities for more coverage along the way, but if you really believe in political neutrality, I don’t know that you have any choice.”
From the interested perspective of one who is outside the LDS faith but frequently looking in, Dr. Richard J. Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., sees the 2012 presidential campaign as a critical moment for Mormons — “Mormon moment” or not.
“A lot of folks who were very hostile toward Mormonism from the traditional Christian community had to really struggle with the question of whether or not it is OK to vote for a Mormon,” said Mouw, who is also a professor of Christian philosophy at the seminary. “Many of them brought into that struggle a lot of the standard biases about Mormonism — that it is a secretive religion, or a non-Christian cult, or that a Mormon president would take his orders from Salt Lake City, or that he would impose a Mormon agenda on American culture and American public policy.”
Throughout 2012, many American Christians had to decide if they could put aside their biases and vote for a presidential candidate they supported in every way except his religion.
“The net effect was for people to feel pretty good about voting for a Mormon for the presidency,” Mouw said. “That fact alone represented sort of a psychological shift in Christian America this year.”
The “psychological shift” of which Mouw speaks is seen in hard numbers in a survey conducted earlier this month by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life among 1,503 adults. The research showed that while Americans learned little substantively about the LDS Church and its teachings and beliefs during 2012, “there appears to be some warming of attitudes toward Mormonism, especially among religious groups that voted heavily for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.”
Monson said that although any attitude changes that have occurred are likely party-oriented — more among Republicans than Democrats — “there is a lot of evidence to suggest that a number of them did soften.”
“What we don’t know,” he added, “is whether that softening is long-lasting.”
And that, Mouw said, is a critical consideration looking into the future.
“We now have a wonderful opportunity to go back and ask, ‘What have we learned?’ and, ‘What do we need to learn?’” Mouw said.
Mouw knows something about this learning process. For a decade he and some of his evangelical Christian colleagues have met semiannually with a team of BYU professors headed by Dr. Robert L. Millet to talk about the theological differences — and similarities — between Mormons and evangelicals. Those conversations, he says, are exciting because they alleviate misunderstanding — in much the same way that much of the coverage of the LDS Church during 2012 has helped in “clearing up the misunderstandings.”
“There’s a general recognition that Mormonism has moved into the mainstream in terms of its involvement in public life and education, leadership on both sides of the political aisle, and the ways in which it is increasingly demonstrating a nuanced approach to the roles of religious pluralism in American life,” said Mouw. “While we continue to have — and will likely always have — some really serious theological issues with each other, I believe there are many in the evangelical community who are saying that while we have traditionally been your worst enemies, we are becoming your best friends.”
And that, in Mouw’s mind, is where the LDS Church is as 2013 begins. Although there are significant theological differences between the Christian community and Latter-day Saints — particularly with regards to the primacy of the Bible, the question of authority and “the whole question about the nature of God,” Mouw said — 2012 made it clear there are also opportunities for Mormons to work with other like-minded believers in areas of public morality.
“Evangelicals and Mormons share a lot of concerns: family values, sexuality, concern for the poor and needy in the world,” said Mouw. “We share a core of issues where we can do a lot of work together — and we need to work together on those issues.”
Even if, as some have suggested, the “Mormon moment” is over.
“I know a lot of Mormons who are ready to leave the ‘Mormon moment’ behind,” Bowman said. “There is a sense of exhaustion from all of the coverage this year. I feel like we reached the point where everything that can be said has been said. I found myself hearing the same questions from the media over and over — and lobbing the same answers back to them over and over.”
“In the short term, we’re going to have a reprieve for a bit here,” Monson said. “But I don’t think you’ll see the church or church members fading away into the background. For example, I don’t think Mitt Romney is going to be the last Mormon candidate for high office.”
Or as Otterson said: “The ‘Mormon moment’ has simply become the cliché of choice, and it’s time to move past it. It’s more than a Mormon moment. It’s time for a new paradigm.”