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.
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.
But in the past century or so the church has changed a fair amount. And it has begun to emphasize those things which make it confluent with American culture rather than those things that make it different.
Is there anything contradictory about a Mormon running for the US presidency?
There is historically, to be sure. One hundred years ago, 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. And it is maybe testament to how far the Mormons have come that Romney is as plausible a candidate as he is.
Does polygamy continue to be a problem for the Mormon Church? Is it one for Mitt Romney?
Romney is the descendent of a plural wife. He would not exist if it were not for polygamy. As to polygamy in the church today, polygamy is a ghost that still haunts many Mormons today. It is still there. The church has gone to great, great pains to distance itself from polygamy. And it is very much a supporter of monogamy now. However, the revelation that Joseph Smith received that began the practice of polygamy remains in the Mormon canon.
What does the average American voter need to know about Romney’s relationship to his church?
A lot of Mormons are actually hoping that Romney doesn’t win. Polls have shown that overall, Mormons tend to be supportive of Mitt Romney. But there’s also a sense of two things. One of them is that Mormonism is not monolithic. There are more Mormons outside the US than in it today. This
stereotypical image of the Mormon as a clean-shaven, well-scrubbed white guy in a white shirt is increasingly not who Mormons are. Romney tends to embody a lot of these stereotypes. Many Mormons are kind of uncomfortable with that.
Secondly, the church has for decades been uncomfortable with injecting itself too deeply into politics. In the first half of the 20th century, it would do this with some regularity.
But over the past 60 years, since the end of the Second World War, the church has been very tentative about it. It injects itself only when it feels there is an overwhelming reason to do so, like with Prop. 8 [the 2008 California ballot proposition banning gay marriage]. And Prop. 8, I think, was an unpleasant experience for the church. There was a severe backlash. And that has made, I think, the church leadership rather gun-shy. They do not want to give the impression that they are messing around in American politics.
As US president, would Mitt Romney be unduly influenced by the hierarchy of his church?
That, I think, is a nuanced issue. He is a Romney. He is a member of one of Mormonism’s leading families. Certainly he knows the men who are at the head of the church. They are probably on rather familiar terms. But again, I think the leadership of the church is very gun-shy about getting involved in politics. So they will probably take a wide berth around talking about political issues with him. But that said, he is going to know, for the most part, what these men think of him and what they would want. And he is a Mormon, of course.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Books editor.