There is a tension--mostly healthy--within contemporary Mormonism. Mormons both want to be distinctive and to find full acceptance within American society. Striking that balance has proven difficult. For the most part, Mormons have been distinguished by their distinctiveness.
Mormons are distinct in some big ways. They have a unique theology, new scripture, and on at least some issues, hold opinions that are far from the norm. According to the new survey of Mormons by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 94 percent of Mormons believe that the president of the LDS Church is a prophet of God, and 91 percent believe that the Book of Mormon was written by ancient prophets and translated by Joseph Smith. Seventy-seven percent attend church weekly (the highest of any religious group in the country). Only 26 percent of Mormons believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society, less than half the percentage of the American public who say the same, lower even than evangelical Protestants. And Mormons are more likely than any other group, again including evangelicals, to say that the most satisfying marriage is one in which the husband provides and the wife stays home. That is distinct.
Mormons are distinct in smaller ways too. For example, they have a vocabulary of their own, such as wards (parishes) and stakes (dioceses), and a host of more whimsical expressions and acronyms.
Perhaps most interestingly, Mormons are also distinctive politically. Contrary to their image as a monolithically conservative bloc, there is a strain of moderation among American Mormons. This moderation is perhaps most striking on the issue of immigration. The Pew survey found that 45 percent of Mormons say that “immigrants strengthen our country because of their hard work and talent,” compared to 41 percent who believe immigrants “are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and health care.” That 45 percent who are positive toward immigrants matches the general public exactly; it is much higher than the percentage of evangelicals--another highly conservative religious group--who say the same. It is even higher than white mainline Protestants, white Catholics, and black Protestants. A survey I conducted (the “Faith Matters” survey) with Robert Putnam of Harvard finds a similar strain of moderation on gay marriage and abortion. In spite of their disapproval of homosexuality, Mormons are the religious group most likely to support civil unions for homosexuals--a middle ground on gay marriage. They also stand apart from other conservative groups in their opposition to abortion. While Mormons are generally pro-life, they differ from other abortion opponents in being the most likely to approve of abortion in cases of rape, incest, and when the mother’s health is in jeopardy.
Internally, this distinctiveness fosters vitality within Mormonism. Mormons participate at high rates in their faith and take care of their own. This is a religious group that, in many ways, resembles a tightknit ethnic group.
But, externally, this distinctiveness comes at a price. Poll after poll finds a lingering antagonism toward Mormons, including a reluctance to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. Mormons themselves are acutely aware of this antagonism. They see misperceptions, misunderstandings, and outright prejudice as the most important problem facing Mormons today. Far more Mormons believe that the portrayal of their kind in popular culture hurts rather than helps their public image. And barely half of Mormons believe that the country is ready to elect a Mormon president, Mitt Romney’s ascendance in the GOP notwithstanding.
And so I suspect that many Mormons are conflicted about the “Mormon moment,” and Mitt Romney’s candidacy in particular. This is not because Romney holds positions that are contrary to those of most Mormons. To the contrary, his pragmatic style meshes well with the strain of Mormon moderation. Indeed, Romney is wildly popular among Republican Mormons, and quite well liked among Mormon Democrats too. His candidacy transcends partisanship, as he is viewed as a path-breaker for the whole community--not unlike John F. Kennedy was for Catholics in 1960 and Barack Obama for African-Americans in 2008. Mormons’ ambivalence about Romney’s prominence, and the ensuing attention paid to the LDS Church, is instead because of the mud that they suspect will be thrown at their faith.
Nonetheless, I hold that Mormons--and the whole country--will be better off for having this national conversation about Mormonism. Increased exposure means short-term pain but a long-term gain in greater understanding and knowledge about the Mormon faith. Other religions have gone from the fringes to the mainstream--Catholicism and Judaism most notably--and there is no reason why the same can’t be true for Mormons as well.
There are hints that Mormons themselves sense the potential for greater acceptance of their religion. The Pew survey finds that 63 percent of Mormons believe Americans are becoming more likely to see Mormons as mainstream, including 70 percent of the most religiously committed Mormons.
However, if Mormons do meet with greater acceptance, it raises an important question. Does a place in the mainstream mean sacrificing distinctiveness? And if so, would diminished distinctiveness threaten Mormonism’s vitality?
David Campbell is the John Cardinal O’Hara, CSC Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Notre Dame.