While he officially secured the Republican nomination last March, Mitt Romney’s primary victories in January 2012 all but guaranteed that, for the first time in American history, a Mormon would be nominated to a major party ticket for president. Romney’s nomination also meant that his often misunderstood and maligned Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) would be the stuff of headlines, at least until Election Day.
When Mitt Romney gave his concession speech in the late hours of November 6, campaign staff, political reporters and pundits closed their notebooks, packed their bags and headed home. It seemed inevitable that Romney’s loss would signal the end of the 2012 Mormon moment in American public life.
But three events since the election, and two in mid December—one, the horrific death of a six-year-old Mormon girl at the Sandy Hook elementary school; the other, the Mormon feminist-led “Wear Pants to Church Day”—proved that the Mormon moment, it seems, lasted through December.
In 2012, much of the focus was on Romney’s LDS Church: its theology, its rituals, and its politics. But it wasn’t just Romney’s religion that found itself under the microscope in 2012. The Mormon people also got a lot of attention. For the American society and polity, the most important take-away from this media scrutiny should be, perhaps fittingly (and perhaps ironically), the same message of the church’s “I am a Mormon” campaign: that Mormons are just like the rest of Americans, in that they are a diverse people. Mormon Americans are straight and gay, conservative and liberal, and racially and ethnically diverse. And like all Americans, Mormons are sometimes the victims of unthinkable and heartbreaking crimes.
In fact, though Mormons have always been more diverse than most Americans have realized, one could argue that 2012 proved to be the “moment” of a visibly more politically, demographically, and geographically diverse Mormon people.
FOR MANY AMERICANS, the idea of “Mormon diversity” has long been a contradiction in terms. As Mormon scholar Terryl Givens has recently argued, in the American imagination, “The stereotypical Mormon is successful, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class, suburban, in a traditional family with one working parent and a stay-at-home mother and five children.” Besides the “middle-class” bit, this description fits Mitt Romney—the most famous Mormon in the world—to the letter, down to his five handsome sons, who themselves embody the quintessential Mormon image.
Or perhaps they embody what used to be the Mormon image. Mitt Romney lost the election, partly because the country has shifted away from this onetime dominant conception of the successful, American male (and potential occupant of the White House), a conception that Romney represented. 2012 also proved that Mormons too are shifting in identity and politics. Though still the vast majority of Mormons in America are Republican and white, the type of Mormon that the Romney boys represent may be on the decline.
Signs of this shift began to appear over last summer. To show that the Mormon people are, in some ways, distinct from their church, which backed California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8, on June 3 hundreds of Mormons took to the streets in the Mormon Church’s hometown of Salt Lake to march in that city’s annual gay pride parade. Through the rest of the summer, thousands more marched in parades across the country. Many held signs with biblical verses extolling the doctrine of inclusivity (“Love Thy Neighbor”); others signs expressed contrition about Mormons’ role in fighting against gay rights (“We love you, sorry we’re late”). During his May Liberty University address, Romney promised to oppose same-sex marriage. But during the summer of 2012 many Mormons worked to reconcile the LDS Church’s heterosexual theology with the reality of gay Americans within their own communities, and within their own homes.
It is important to note that in 2012 the LDS Church was conspicuously absent in state battles over gay marriage in Minnesota, Maine, Washington, and Maryland. Four years ago, Prop 8 not only pitted the gay community against the LDS Church; Mormon communities themselves were torn apart, with young people, who are typically more supportive of gay marriage, leaving the church in unprecedented numbers. In response, just last month, the LDS Church itself launched a new website, mormonsand gays.org. While it still considers gay sexual acts a sin (like all sex outside of marriage), this website signals that the church recognizes that it needs to follow the lead of its own membership and build bridges to the LBGT community.
Mormonism and politics, of course, was the dominant Mormon story of 2012. Like a vast majority of Mormons, Romney is a Republican. But not all Mormons are Republicans, and not all Mormon Democrats are named Harry Reid. Groups like “Mormons for Obama” made their case—even at the Democratic National Convention—that the values of Mormonism, especially the Mormon ideal of care for the poor, are more in line with the Democratic Party than the current values espoused by the GOP. As Mormon entrepreneur and historian Gregory Prince explained, “The very basis of Mormon community, stretching back to the earliest years of Mormonism … is that the more able have a sacred obligation to assist the less able.”
The stereotype of the Mormon as Republican was even challenged by the polling data from Election Night, 2012. To the surprise of pretty much everybody, Mitt Romney got fewer Mormon votes than George W. Bush in 2004. While 80 percent of Mormons pulled the lever for Bush, eight years later, 78 percent did so for their co-religionist. To be sure, this is a small change. Both polls and pundits predicted an unprecedented Mormon bloc vote for the Mormons’ first major party presidential candidate.
Besides Mitt Romney, arguably the most famous Mormon in America to emerge this year was a Mormon feminist and scholar, Joanna Brooks, a professor at San Diego State University, and senior correspondent at Religion Dispatches. From her appearances on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” to lengthy profiles at CNN, Brooks was the Mormon “it” girl of 2012 (I use the word “girl” with Brooks’ implicit permission; her now ubiquitous memoir—even for purchase at Walmart—is the aptly titled The Book of Mormon Girl.). While Brooks said she was “very protective of Romney” because of their shared faith, she was also one of his fiercest political critics, especially when it came to his (often shifting) positions on gay rights, abortion, women’s role in the church, the home (and the workplace), even foreign policy. Romney, she made clear, embodies only “one slice of our faith.”
Perhaps another slice of that faith was represented in trousers on December 16. Instead of the implicitly prescribed uniform of a modest blouse and a knee-length dress, thousands of Mormon women from around the country donned pants to attend services at their local meetinghouses. “Wear Your Pants to Church” co-organizer Sandra Durkin Ford explained to (non other than) Joanna Brooks that it wasn’t really about the pants. The event was a protest against gender imbalances in Mormon churches and in Mormon homes. “[We] are committed to the Mormon Church.” But Ford also stated that an increasingly number of Mormon feminists “would like to stop talking about equality and starting acting on it. Following civil rights leaders, suffragettes, our heroes in the feminist movement, we wanted to start engaging in peaceful resistance to gender inequality in the Church.”
The stereotypical image of the Mormon Church member was also challenged. In large part because Romney was running against America’s first black president, black Mormons became regular fixtures on talk shows and in newspapers profiles. They too got their turn on “The Daily Show” in October, a month before the election. And two devout Mormon athletes of color—the Chicagoland basketball phenom Jabari Parker, who is black, and Manti Te’o, who is Samoan and who led (though unsuccessfully) Notre Dame in this year’s college football championship—graced the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The same holds true for the profile of the Mormon political candidate. Mormons of African descent, who before 1978 would not have been welcome as full members in the LDS Church, emerged as national and international figures. Mia Love, who ran unsuccessfully for a congressional seat in Utah, spoke at the Republican National Convention in August. And Yeah Samaké was a candidate for the presidency of Mali before that country’s March 2012 coup. While their conservative politics are more in line with Romney’s, Love and Samaké too represent the (demographic) future of Mormonism: a faith that is quickly becoming more international than American, more non-white than white, more poor (but upwardly mobile) than rich.
Finally we turn our attention to a press conference at a Mormon meetinghouse in Newtown, Connecticut, on the Saturday after the Sandy Hook (Yes, Americans have also learned that Mormons don’t just live in Utah). Only fifteen days before Christmas, Robbie Parker told the world about his beautiful daughter Emilie Parker, who died in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary the day before. In words that were particularly Mormon, but would bring many Americans to tears of recognition, Parker described his daughter as a budding artist, who used her talents—“gifts given to her by her heavenly father”—to brighten the days for those in need. “I can’t count the number of times Emilie noticed someone feeling sad or frustrated,” Parker said, “and would rush to find a piece of paper to draw them a picture or write them an encouraging note.”
In his own summation of the Mormon moment of 2012, Patrick Mason, chair of Mormon Studies at the Claremont Graduate University, recently wrote that whether it’s Mitt Romney, Manti T’eo, or Mia Love, “it seems that every time a Mormon does something of any note, it is a surprise.”
Perhaps in 2013 and beyond, this should be less of a surprise. And as we imagine, now can only imagine, Emilie Parker drawing notes of love and support that she would have placed at the memorials that have sprung up in Newtown, perhaps it should be less of a surprise that Mormons are our neighbors, and neighbors who often abide by the best American virtue: “Love Thy Neighbor.”
Max Perry Mueller is a contributing editor to Religion & Politics.