With former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney both believed to be gearing up for a run for the presidency, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has again found itself answering questions about what these two prominent members believe.
Post reporter Sandhya Somashekhar wrote in a story published Tuesday that Mormon leaders see the ascendancy of these and other Mormons (such as convert Glenn Beck) as a sign “that the community has finally ‘arrived,'” but added “researchers say there remains a deep mistrust of Mormons and that little has changed in public opinion to suggest that voters will be more open this year than they were in 2007.”
If conservative Christian and Mormons share a political agenda, why do suspicions still plague Mormon politicians? Do media personalities such as Glenn Beck help or hurt the cause?
It’s ironic that a discussion of the public’s comfort-level with Mormons should be pegged to a question about politicians, since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is meticulously neutral in partisan politics.
Actually, the Church may be making good ground, if a Washington Post report less than two weeks ago can be relied upon. Neither can I accept the gross overstatement that suspicions “plague” Mormon politicians, as the question claims. That would be news indeed to the 15 elected members of the current Congress for whom their church affiliation has never been a barrier for them or their diverse constituents.
In reality, Americans don’t look to high-profile politicians, such as Majority Leader Harry Reid, or to former governors Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr., to understand our faith. Neither do they look to personalities like Glenn Beck, who touches on his faith occasionally but who doesn’t claim to speak for the Church or other members. I suggest that people are much more likely to dismiss stereotypes after associating personally with their Mormon neighbors or colleagues at work – the people they know best.
There aren’t many Mormons who think that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has “finally arrived” if that implies that the United States has been swept by a wave of enlightened understanding about Mormons and their beliefs. We are a long way from that. But I think most Mormons do believe that time is on their side, in the sense that with six million American Mormons and growing, Americans are having more and more interaction with ordinary Church members and that will lead to some good.
Mormons encourage such interaction. Most recognize their relative public “obscurity,” but they know that the past decade has brought significant increases in visibility. Big events like the 2002 Winter Olympics, the presidential campaigns of 2008 (and probably 2012), and the emergence of a number of prominent Mormons in politics, business and in arts and entertainment has helped make Mormons feel that they are a much more common topic of conversation. Many Mormons have entered into public debate with enthusiasm, especially in this Internet age. Countless thousands of Church members blog – a phenomenon noted in the emergence of the tongue-in-cheek word “Bloggernacle,” and the strong Mormon presence in the world of “Mommy bloggers.”
Like many others, Mormons love to tell their own stories. Take a look at this unscripted YouTube video, for instance, on how one young man brought more than 20 others into his Church congregation in Florida. At the other end of the spectrum, the Financial Times recently produced an insightful feature on what’s behind Church growth, and attributed a great deal to the tradition of missionary service and an emphasis on higher education. The opportunities for social interaction between Mormons and their neighbors at every level of society is substantially enhanced from what it was in the 1950s, when the vast majority of Mormons were found in Utah.
As the barriers of personal prejudice come down, it will become more apparent that while Mormons expect to be seen as an integrated part of American society and culture (or that of Brazil, or Ghana, or Korea, or wherever else they live), they don’t want to trade the distinctiveness of their faith for mere popularity. Mormons know that their faith and some aspects of how they live are distinctive. It may be that very distinctiveness that is attracting followers. The Church is bucking a general trend of falling church attendances, and it’s not doing so by being exactly the same as the church on the next block.
Certainly there is in Mormonism a remarkable sense of community and belonging, and a sense that life has a specific purpose. While the membership itself is quite diverse, that membership is bonded together by a particular understanding of what it means to follow Jesus Christ, and how that belief should be reflected in how they live their lives.
Community service, for instance, is integral to church life. While it’s easy for non-Mormons to dismiss the prophetic role of Joseph Smith or the relevance of the Book of Mormon as scripture, these are part of what creates a sense of community and identity that is quite unique in Christendom.
Like any major faith, the Church will always have its critics, and it’s probable that the larger we get the more of those critics there will be. Ultimately, it is the church’s own people – all of them, not just the more prominent – who will play a crucial role in increasing understanding among the public as a whole.