Mormons are a diverse lot and do not all share the same attitudes or outlooks. But if we can speak in terms of collective psychology, then Mormons are similar to other historic minority groups in America. They experience a kind of double-mindedness in relation to the broader culture, wishing simultaneously to be fully included while also seeking to retain their own distinctive identity. This has been the historical trajectory of mainstream Mormonism (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) ever since the end of the nineteenth century, when it gave up polygamy, communitarian economics, and direct church involvement in politics in the face of pronounced legislative, judicial, religious, cultural, and even violent opposition. For the past century, Mormons--not unlike Jews, African Americans, and other minority groups--have sought to maintain group cohesion while fully accommodating the broader society and thus gaining all the benefits of integration.
This mentality can be seen today in popular culture as well as the church’s most recent PR campaign. Mormon participants have done remarkably well on hit reality TV shows, garnering considerable attention and viewership along the way. Furthermore, the LDS Church has spent millions of dollars with its latest “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign, blitzing dozens of cities and YouTube with inviting portrayals of Mormon rock stars, athletes, bikers, and stay-at-home moms. The message is clear: we sing, we dance, we play, we parent, just like you--and we happen to be Mormon. Distinctive religious content is muted if not fully erased. Of course, along with its benefits this also presents a problem for a proselytizing faith: If Mormons are just like everyone else, then why should anyone bother joining up?
Mindful of the very real persecution that dogged the movement in its early decades, Mormons continue to harbor suspicions about outside scrutiny. Critical assessments of any aspect of Mormon belief, behavior, or culture are typically dismissed as prejudicially false and “anti-Mormon,” whereas more validating portrayals are embraced as objectively fair and accurate. This kind of embattled, us-versus-them mentality is more suited to the 19th century than the 21st, but it demonstrates the lasting effects that marginalization and violence can have on an entire group. And, to be fair, gross misrepresentations and nasty caricatures of Mormonism continue to pop up from both the religious right and secular left. Mormons who still feel besieged are not just chasing shadows.
This tension--of believing that all publicity is good publicity, while constantly remaining wary for anything resembling bad publicity--shapes how many Mormons have approached this year’s presidential campaign. Many Mormons thrill at the prospect of a fellow Latter-day Saint in the White House. This is not, as some have suggested, attributable to a clandestine plan to implement a Mormon policy agenda. Rather, it would be a sign that Mormons have at long last achieved legitimacy and inclusion in American public life, similar to the feeling among Catholics that they had finally arrived with John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960. Some of the faith’s more strident critics have made this precise point in arguing why a Mormon candidate should be opposed. On the other side, it also helps explain the sentiment among some lifelong Mormon Democrats (yes, there is such a thing) that they would vote for Mitt Romney in a general election, despite his politics, because he is “one of us.”
Identity politics are clearly not the only factor in Mormons’ enthusiasm for a Romney presidency. Indeed, many conservative Mormons have been highly critical of Democratic Senate Majority Leader (and fellow Latter-day Saint) Harry Reid. That Mitt Romney’s politics generally line up with an overwhelmingly conservative Mormon American electorate is the most important element in their support for him--remember that George W. Bush won 73 percent of the 2004 vote in Utah. Romney’s religious identity and fidelity to the faith are crucial, but secondary, components that merely seal the deal for most Mormons.
Many Mormons are understandably pleased at the sustained attention being paid them during this so-called “Mormon moment.” But they are ambivalent about the costs of fame. Confident in the quality of their faith and community, Mormons are happy for the limelight and generally feel they have nothing to hide. They are not so confident, however, that the rest of the world will understand their story, let alone value what they hold as precious. Like most people, Mormons crave validation and influence, but wince knowing that their religion, like any other complex worldview, can come off sounding odd when reduced to sound bites.