Mormonism After Mitt

Did Mitt Romney's failed bid for the presidency effectively end the "Mormon Moment"? No, because he was not solely responsible for creating it. Indeed, his 2012 candidacy was but the last in a series of events that gave Mormonism unprecedented prominence in the United States--and gave unprecedented acceptance to a religion that has been described as the most vilified and persecuted in American history. The earlier events included:

· The national broadcast, in the spring of 2007, of Helen Whitney's 4-hour PBS series, "The Mormons," that was viewed by a record audience.

· The trial and conviction, in September of the same year, of Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, on two counts of rape as an accomplice. While the FLDS Church has no connection with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), the ties of the two churches to polygamy resulted in heightened attention to both.

· The unsuccessful candidacy, in the spring of 2008, of Mitt Romney, due in part to his religion being unacceptable to the evangelical wing of his party.

· Proposition 8, a proposal on the California ballot in the 2008 general election to outlaw same-sex marriage. Defeat of Prop 8 appeared likely until midway through the year, when the Mormon Church, which viewed same-sex marriage as a moral issue, weighed in heavily. Church members contributed millions of dollars and untold thousands of hours in what became a successful campaign to pass the proposition. Because of its pivotal role, the Mormon Church became synonymous with Prop 8.

· The opening on Broadway, in March 2011, of "The Book of Mormon," an irreverent musical depicting Mormon missionaries in Uganda. An immediate hit, it went on to win nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.

The net effect of these events was to pull back the curtain on Mormonism. Some viewed what they saw with pleasure, and others with disappointment; but all who bothered to look closely were surprised. Contrary to dark and dramatic predictions from all the pundits--Mormon and non-Mormon--Romney's religion was rarely mentioned by the candidate or his critics. Mormonism's "weirdness" was a non-event. If the acceptance wasn't a full embrace, Mormonism was still given a pass, and religious tolerance in America made a remarkable step forward. And in an ironic twist, this acceptance works in the reverse direction as well. Just as Romney was not tarred--unlike in the past--by his religion, neither was Mormonism held to account for Romney's campaign, one that many people, including Mormons, felt was unprincipled, even "shameless." One of the most enduring stereotypes of Mormons is "that they are slippery, that they never tell us what they believe." Romney's five-year crawl to the Republican nomination involved jettisoning every position and principle he had espoused. In the past, such behavior would have been seen--unfairly--as yet more proof of the essential untrustworthy nature of Mormons. Now, in the words of Garry Wills, Romney's "loss of honor" is his alone.

The curtain will remain open on a religion that was largely demystified during the process of Romney's candidacy. Now out of the shadows and firmly in the public square, the Mormon Moment reverberates in unexpected ways for both Mormons and non-Mormons.

Mormonism has already provoked a serious conversation about religion and its place in society. But in addition, the discussion might create greater religious literacy among non-Mormons. According to the Pew polls this is sorely needed, for the illiteracy among Americans about their own religion is shocking. As an example, following the broadcast of Whitney's PBS documentary, "The Mormons," the conversations on- and offline comparing Mormonism to mainline religions were intense and betrayed breathtaking ignorance on both sides. Only the atheists seemed to know chapter and verse of the various traditions. People were shocked into recognizing that their own foundational myths were as fabulous as those of the Mormons--that their own core beliefs were equally though differently permeated with the supernatural. In addition, non-Mormons were forced to recognize that their religious history had its own dark corners. They had their own Mountain Meadows Massacres. Tom Wolfe's witty aside about the definition of a cult--"a religion without political clout"--took on new meaning for a newly educated public.

The following questions, all of which look forward rather than backward, come directly out of this new scrutiny. While they are of particular interest to Mormons, they also evoke similar concerns in all the traditions. The ongoing Mormon Moment should be of interest to anyone concerned about the fate of religion in the 21st century.

1. Within the United States, will the Mormon Church once again become a church of significant growth? Although widely touted in past years as "the fastest growing church in the country" (or world), its growth within the United States has slowed nearly to a standstill. The current growth rate of less than 1% annually (based on numbers of congregations) can be accounted for entirely through baptism of children of current Mormon families. This is far below historical levels for Mormonism, and likely is due to a combination of poor retention of converts and an increasing outflow of life-long members--particularly young adults--whose frustration with the status quo leads them to walk away from church activity. The latter problem is shared with virtually all other religious traditions within the United States, Christian and otherwise, and Mormonism's engagement with it is likely to have significance that transcends its own borders.

2. Will the Church be able to shift its primary focus from proselytizing to humanitarianism? Romney's dismissal of "the 47 percent" as of little value has intensified a discussion well underway inside Mormonism about core principles. If we are our brother's keeper, who is our brother? Only our families? The converted? Or have we strayed from Jesus' admonitions to take care of the needy? Romney's comments had unintended consequences, provoked uncomfortable soul searching among Mormons. Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, himself a devout Mormon, declared: "Romney is not the face of Mormonism!" The newest and most intriguing of the four elements of the Mormon Church's mission statement is "to take care of the poor and needy throughout the world," regardless of their church membership. Mormons have long been exemplary in their efforts to take care of their own; the challenge from their current prophet is to turn their attention outward. Given the inclination of many of today's youth, the option of spending two years in humanitarian service--essentially a "Mormon Peace Corps"--rather than proselytizing missions is intriguing. Pilot programs along this line have been put into effect recently. Offering the humanitarian option (or even transforming the entire missionary program) presents the possibility of a full-time corps of over 100,000 volunteers. Given the altruistic inclinations of young Americans in general, success by the Mormon Church is this arena might lead to similar initiatives among other faith traditions--or perhaps even collaborative efforts.

3. Will Mormonism find a way to resolve its struggles with women and gays--struggles that also preoccupy mainstream churches? The Mormon Church is governed by a lay priesthood that is exclusively male. Nearly all policy and staffing decisions are made in the absence of women--and often without any input from women. A debate that in prior decades focused solely on ordination of women now includes discussion of ways whereby women can gain a greater institutional voice, with or without formal priesthood ordination. When the Church recently announced the lowering of the ages for missionary service--to 18 years for young men, and 19 years for young women--by far the larger increase in applications was from young women, who in prior years comprised less than 20% of the missionary force. If their numbers approach parity with young male missionaries, will they demand greater influence in general church governance? Regarding gays, in the aftermath of an unexpected Prop 8 backlash the Church has stayed on the sidelines as the issue of gay marriage has been approved by several states, most recently Maryland, Maine and Washington. Furthermore, it has softened policies and rhetoric regarding homosexuality, and now allows openly gay (albeit celibate) young men and women to serve as full-time proselytizing missionaries. Will the passing from the scene of gay-unfriendly elderly church (and political) leaders, and the maturation of gay-friendly young Mormons accelerate further changes in policy, and perhaps even doctrine?

4. Will Mormonism become truly bipartisan? Utah is the reddest state in the country, and the Mormon Church is one of the reddest churches in the country, if not the reddest. No Democratic Senator has been elected from Utah since 1970. While Mormons have tended to be well represented in Republican White Houses, they have been absent or near absent in the White Houses of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The general leadership of the Church sees the advantages of becoming bipartisan enough to gain continual representation, yet Democrats remain a small minority within the Mormon Church in this country--although no longer an endangered species. Exit polls showing that a slightly smaller percentage of Mormons voted for Mitt Romney (78%) than for George W. Bush in 2004 (80%) may presage a shift away from political conservatism.

5. Can Mormons overcome racism? From the 1840s until 1978, Mormon men of black African descent could not be ordained to the priesthood. While that policy was changed in 1978, racism remains a problem, particularly in Southern States. (Mormons are not alone, of course, as recent polls have shown the majority of Americans to harbor racist feelings.) While aware of the problem, church officers have addressed it directly in the Church's semi-annual general conferences only once--2006--in recent years. A troubling exodus of black Mormons begs an open confrontation of residual racism.

6. Will the prophetic voice of Mormonism reach beyond church members? The fifteen men in the Church's two policy-making councils all bear a title that includes the phrase "Prophet, Seer and Revelator." While the prophetic voice is regularly directed towards church members on a variety of internal issues, it has rarely focused on larger societal issues, unless they were perceived to have a direct effect on the Church--such as the Equal Rights Amendment and the MX Missile in the 1970s. Will the prophetic voice be directed outward, with Mormon leaders staking out public positions on global issues such as poverty, disease, peace, pluralism, environmentalism and global warming?

7. How will the Church respond to the challenges raised by science? The tools of scientific methodology have been appropriated by virtually every academic discipline, and are being applied as never before to the study of faith traditions. While all religious traditions are coming under increased scrutiny by academe, Mormonism's high current profile, its relative youth compared to other world religions, and its treasure trove of records dating back to its founding make it a particularly attractive target for academic investigation that has already called into question some of the foundational claims of the Church. Will the advances of science change the way in which Mormons view themselves? Will they change the ways in which non-Mormons view Mormonism? Will Mormonism respond to science by assimilating new paradigms, or will it hunker down, crush dissent and demand orthodoxy? And how will its responses relate to those of other religious traditions?

Ironically, Mitt Romney has driven the discussion about Mormonism and the Republican Party, but with dramatic, unintended consequences, certainly not those he envisioned. Just as his narrow view of the "deserving folks" in society (not the 47 percent) has provoked an intense soul searching within Mormonism, so has his campaign's focus on "the deserving" voters (the white males who voted for him) provoked an equally intense, long overdue discussion about the heart and soul--indeed the survival--of the Republican Party. So while Mitt Romney is fading quickly from the scene--his most recent comments about President Obama having purchased the election by dispensing "gifts" have turned even the Republican establishment against him--the Mormon Moment will continue, and in spite of Romney's views and innumerable gaffes. His role as a catalyst has been significant, positive, durable. Seventeen Mormons will serve in the next Congress, including the Senate Majority Leader, giving Mormonism nearly double the representation of its proportion of the population. Evangelicals signaled a changed and accepting relationship with Mormonism by voting for Romney at a slightly higher percentage (79%) even than Mormons--a stunning contrast to their wholesale rejection of him four years earlier that cost him the 2008 nomination. "The Book of Mormon" will remain a hit on Broadway for years to come. The intriguing questions are how the institutional church will confront issues that challenge, as never before, the internal status quo, and whether it will move to leverage its new position within the public square and speak outwardly with a voice of moral leadership.