What are we to think, now that a Mormon has clinched the presidential nomination of one of America’s two major parties? The respectable Victorian men who ruled America’s politics during the 1912 election would have been stricken with chills at the thought of a presidential election a century hence pitting a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints against an African American. So looked at in one way, the 2012 election – like the 2008 – signals that America does seem to be a melting pot. African Americans and Mormons alike – like Catholics before them – once reviled and suspect minorities, are now capable participants in American public life.
But looked at from another way, perhaps the melting pot is a less than adequate metaphor. The Mormons, particularly, seem to have reached only that level of assimilation absolutely required to avoid complete exclusion from American culture. In part this is because Mormons like it that way. There are things about American culture they find uncomfortable. But it is also in part because depending on the poll you choose, anywhere from ten to thirty percent of the American public are hesitant about voting for a Mormon president. These numbers are the product of a long history of negotiation between Mormonism and American culture writ large.
It is common to compare Mitt Romney to John F. Kennedy. In 1960, many Americans were suspicious of Catholicism, wary of the power they imagined the pope held over the minds of his followers and bemused by elements of Catholic theology and practice. These are attitudes Mormons have a weary familiarity with. But upon his election John F. Kennedy did not conspire to destroy the republic, nor prove a credulous puppet of the pope, nor mandate that American citizens pay Mary respect. It seems common sense that his presidency went a long way toward normalizing Roman Catholicism.
However, Kennedy was more product than cause of Catholic normalization. The long conversation between Catholicism and America had neared its end by 1960. The year Kennedy was inaugurated Roman Catholicism was the single largest religious denomination in the United States, and Catholics were well integrated into America’s schools, clubs, TV shows, and movies. Americans had Catholic neighbors, and by virtue of familiarity and boatloads of immigrants Catholicism had ceased to be weird.
Mormons face a steeper climb. Their religion lacks the magisterial tradition of Roman Catholicism or Islam; thus many Americans find Mormon theology faintly fantastical and thus presume that Mormons must be either somewhat credulous or somewhat dim. There are roughly as many Mormons in the world as there are Jews, and a mere six million in the United States; thus many Americans know few or no Mormons, and are comfortable generalizing from Mitt Romney’s awkwardness on the stump or the behavior of characters on “Big Love” or rumors they heard in college. Mormonism as yet lacks the respectable patina of age and acquaintanceship. These are not things Mitt Romney can grant it.
What, then, will 2012 do for Mormons? They are, like any collection of Americans, rather divided. Some are uncomfortable with the endless stream of stories reading Mormonism into every Romney twitch or malapropism. Many others welcome the spotlight, and hope that this time Americans may prove willing to, if not elect one of their own to the presidency, at least grant them respect. After all, this is not the first Mormon moment. Nor will it likely be the last. If America is not a melting pot, perhaps it might hang together like a patchwork quilt.
Matthew Bowman is author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”