1919 DID NOT MARK a conclusion to this battle: in fact, one might more accurately gauge that it was not until the 1950s that Mormons won the day. This decade was probably the apex of Mormon acceptance and civic inclusion. If we are to judge on the basis of the practices of politics in everyday life—in the participation of Saints in the government and in the educational and business sectors, and in the acknowledgement of Mormon cultural achievements, this was the Mormon moment. The popular media of the 1950s heralded the Mormon business acumen and the bevy of successful corporate leaders as a cause for admiration, and gushed that their close-knit communities presented a model of civic cooperation. In 1952 Coronet magazine published an article entitled “Those Amazing Mormons,” in which they were described as “vigorous and independent.” A New York Times Magazine writer in 1952 lauded them for their welfare program and ability to care for members. In 1965, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Turner published The Mormon Establishment, an analysis of the LDS Church that traced its path from a small, homogeneous community with some radical economic and social ideas to a worldwide corporate and American entity. He admired the buildings lining Temple Square in Salt Lake City, he appreciated the vast church welfare system put into place during the Great Depression, and he favorably compared George Romney, then a potential contender for the Republic presidential nomination, with other moderate party members such as Mark Hatfield. With a few reservations, he concluded, he “found their doctrine to be humane, productive of progress, patriotic, wholesome and praiseworthy.” The Mormons, he concluded, had become a modern American church.
So, the question for us today is, what happened? By all measures, and certainly in the eyes of many Mormons, the Saints by 1960 had successfully assimilated into American life, demonstrating admirable civic engagement, educational attainments, and involvement with as many interdenominational religious efforts as would accept them. The church has worked long and hard to build acceptance as a legitimate player in the world of American public life. Why is it that a significant minority of people polled about their voting preferences now says that they would not vote for a Mormon candidate? And what light can this brief history shed on the reasons for that invisible boundary to Mormon citizenship?
The short answer is that America, too, has changed dramatically since the 1950s. By the early 1960s, journalists began to report more negatively on the LDS “hard sell” evangelistic techniques, their control of Utah politics, and their “rigid conservatism.” Writers expressed alarm over the “unquestioning belief” in church leaders. The Civil Rights movement, which swept away many previously segregated white churches into an interracial embrace, left the Mormons behind as holdouts in the move toward full integration of African Americans. In sum, the rules of inclusion began to change dramatically, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not seem to be keeping up with the tectonic cultural and political shifts roiling around it.
A second feature of the current political climate is the pervasiveness and cultural combativeness of anti-Mormonism. Some of the Protestant antipathy, to be sure, has been around for a long time. A movement to police the boundaries of Christianity more aggressively accompanied the growth of conservative evangelical political strength in the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, we witnessed the growth of an anti-cult movement that targeted the Mormons as a dangerous social force. The salient issue and possibly the worst offense, at this point, was that Mormon social mores were so much like those of evangelicals. Whereas in 1919 evangelicals could still use the recent legacy of polygamy to distinguish their behavior from those of the Mormons, by the 1970s Mormons seemed quite, well, conservatively Christian in their behavior. They touted wholesome family values, they supported traditional roles for women, and they practiced an admirable fastidiousness toward the use of coffee, alcohol, and cigarettes.
In the current moment, too, Mormons have fewer liberal sympathizers and more enemies. Now, we see atheists who are cultural combatants every bit as assertive as their evangelical counterparts, and we hear regularly from liberal pundits such as Maureen Dowd and Lawrence O’Donnell as they invoke temple rituals and sacred undergarments to measure the oddities of Mormons. Currently, the church seems to be getting it from all sides.
For Saints themselves, this negative response can seem quite puzzling in light of their history of steadily increasing acceptance. They thought they knew how to be citizens, how to participate and to be included as full members of the body politic. They have practiced for a century, tinkering with the formula when necessary, and yet their efforts still don’t seem to be good enough for other Americans, who keep moving the bar in response. This dynamic raises an interesting theoretical question, for which we still don’t have an answer: what would Mormons have to do, short of renouncing their religion, to be accepted in the public square? As the Saints have attempted to resolve the dilemma of Mormon citizenship, the stakes of the long Mormon moment have crystallized in this election cycle. Mitt Romney’s candidacy has served as only the latest catalyst to solidify the tensions and problems of a long and complex history.
Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp is Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This article is based on a lecture she gave in April at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics.
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