History has not recorded the name of the journalist who created the phrase, “the Mormon moment.”
The originator may have been a headline writer for U.S. News and World Report who, back in November of 2000, used “Mormon Moment” as the label for a story triggered by a new Mormon temple in Houston. The church’s growth, according to the story’s author, reporter Jeff Sheler, was “a tangible sign of the rising fortunes of this uniquely American religious movement …the Salt Lake City-based church is finding a home in the least likely places, from Houston to Helsinki, and from Tampa to Tokyo.”
Two years later the media identified another “Mormon moment” when the Winter Olympics arrived in Salt Lake City. After five more years we entered the U.S. election season of 2007-8 with the “Mormon moment” phrase rising in favor once again. And today, if you Google the “Mormon moment” you’ll get some 175,000 hits.
If we are literal about it, a moment is an indefinite but very short period. An instant. A jiffy. A flash. But The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a long and poignant history in the United States. It emerged out of backwoods New York in the early 1800s, faced decades of prejudice and persecution that today sound unbelievable to American ears (an official, government-issued extermination order, for instance). Yet in its forced exile to the Rocky Mountains the church somehow survived and flourished, growing through the 1950s and 60s while earning increasing national respect, to become today the fourth largest Christian church in the country.
After a 180-year history and twelve years of calling it a “moment,” we should re-examine the paradigm.
Treating this rising interest in the Mormon faith as a fleeting fad tends to shoehorn the subject into a confined timeframe and invite simplistic definitions and questionable conclusions. In their rush to render judgment in such a context, political journalists on TV talk shows generate shallow discussions about what is and what isn’t relevant about a candidate’s Mormon faith. Fundamentalist pastors, with little experience of Latter-day Saints and even less knowledge, pontificate on whether Mormons qualify to be Christian. A handful of bloggers seize on the moment to drive their own favored topics irrespective of how relevant or important those issues are to the great rank and file membership or, indeed, its leadership.
If we brush away the trivia, however, we find something much more interesting. More and more in recent years we have seen serious books from prestigious publishing houses examine the faith of Latter-day Saints in greater depth. The groundbreaking “American Grace” by authors David Campbell and Robert Putman is a case in point, but there are several others. The respected Pew Research Center has conducted in-depth research and sponsored seminars that remind journalists that the Mormon faith is a fascinating subject for the serious minded. This should be greatly welcomed.
This week, a trio of sociologists from the University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University-Purdue will release a new study that captures just how deeply committed Latter-day Saints are --not only to their own faith, but to their wider community. According to this independent and robust study of churchgoing Latter-day Saints, Mormons are the most “pro-social” members of American society. Evidently, an average church-attending Latter-day Saint provides more than eight hours of volunteer labor a month compared with the average American’s contribution of about one hour per month. Even when all of their considerable service within the church is extracted from the data, Latter-day Saints still equal the national average for volunteering to secular causes.
In ways few people realize, the Mormon people have already become an integrated part of the fabric of American society. I’m not talking about famous Mormons or Broadway musicals or other elements of popular culture, but of millions of ordinary folks who live their values and work every day side by side with their fellow citizens. And since Mormons are here to stay, journalists owe it to their audiences to begin to capture the essence of what it is to be a Latter-day Saint, in ways that faithful Latter-day Saints themselves would recognize.
I have been a member of my church for 45 years since I converted as a young man in England, and have lived among Mormons where they are a tiny minority and a substantial majority. I have worshiped with fellow-Mormons on every continent and been in their homes. I think I have a pretty good handle on what the Latter-day Saint worldview is, what their core values and beliefs are and what they are not. And while the worldwide membership today is one of remarkable ethnic and cultural diversity, the common threads that define Latter-day Saints are easily identified but frequently missed.
So here is my invitation to serious journalists. Get to know us, properly. Drop into our services, talk to our people, have dinner with a local leader, spend a family home evening with a family, be present when a young soon-to-be missionary opens his or her “call letter” and learns where they will be spending the next couple of years. Join with us on a service project. And then, when you have scratched the surface in this way, closely observe the transformation of people’s lives outside the church as missionaries teach them and they go through the conversion process. Watch those who transition from attitudes of hopelessness to lives of purpose and meaning and learn new ways to follow Jesus Christ. Talk to a Mormon bishop --our version of the local pastor, but who is unpaid for their volunteer work --as he helps people grapple with problems of addiction or shaky marriages or unemployment. Examine the doctrine - not through the simplistic “us and them” comparisons that we see so often, but in ways that explain how the doctrine of the church influences behavior.
This is the church I have known in my life, and these are aspects that few journalists have ever explored in their frenzied world of Internet-driven deadlines and 600-word limitations. The “Mormon moment” has simply become the cliché of choice, and it’s time to move past it. It’s more than a Mormon moment. It’s time for a new paradigm.
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Michael Otterson is an On Faith panelist and heads the worldwide public affairs functions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.