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Author Matthew Bowman talks about 'the Mormon moment'

Author Matthew Bowman talks about Mormonism, a faith that once stood apart, but may now host a US president among its ranks.  

By / March 1, 2012

"If you told most Americans that in 2012 the candidates for the major parties to be president of the United States would be a black man and a Mormon, a lot of people would have been shocked," says author Matthew Bowman.

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Mitt Romney. Broadway smash “The Book of Mormon.” HBO hit series “Big Love.” Mormonism seems to be center stage these days. Religion scholar Matthew Bow­man looked at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – past and present – in The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. I recently had the chance to talk with Bowman about his book, the rise of “the Mormon moment,” and what American voters should know about Romney. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

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Previously you had mainly studied the evangelical Christian church. Why are you now writing about Mormonism?

[Today we’re seeing] the rise of what has been called “the Mormon moment.” I think it is not the first Mormon moment and will not be the last. But it is one getting more attention.
 

The Mormon theology – with its narrative of buried golden tablets, a battle between Nephites and Lamanites, Jesus visiting North America – can seem odd to non-Mormons. Is it really more or less unusual than some other religious beliefs?

Mormonism is perceived as being unusual for two reasons. One is that it’s a very small faith. There are about 14 million Mormons in the world. The other thing is that [the church’s teachings] are new. Joseph Smith founded a new religion in the modern world. Smith’s visionary experiences and his scandalous claims to be speaking the words of God in 1840s America seems very freshly provocative to us. But it’s not really so different from Muhammad claiming to speak for God in the desert of Arabia. Or Joan of Arc seeing visions of angels in her farmhouse in medieval France. [Mormonism] has not yet gained the dignity which comes with age.

Mormonism has grown rapidly over the years. Why do converts find it so appealing? 

First, Mormonism is a very egalitarian religion. They have no trained clergy, no trained hierarchy. Anyone can join the church and [potentially] become a high priest, set over a congregation to minister. Another reason is that it is demanding. And that’s sort of paradoxical, but it is actually true. Churches that demand a lot of their followers are churches that tend to retain their followers and to attract new followers. The church [also] offers a very, very powerful community. People want a place where they can go and feel that they belong. And the church offers a very powerful version of that.

Do you think Mormonism will eventually become mainstream? 

That depends on if it continues to grow. Its growth rate has slowed. It was at its peak in the 1950s through the ’80s. Many Mormons actually feel mainstream. Many Mormons don’t think there’s anything that odd about their religion and nothing that makes them less American.

Should Mormonism be mainstream? Its being mainstream seems a bit at odds with the founding vision of the church.

There’s been a complicated relationship [between the church and] American culture from the beginning. Joseph Smith envisioned a very different society than the society that surrounded him. He wanted to change the nature of American community in deep and fundamental ways: economically, culturally, and politically.

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