Every Mormon I know has been watching Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign with close interest because of the kinship we feel with him. And, for his part, Romney has used Mormon social and business networks to enlist bundlers, donors, and volunteers. Those networks may play a role in key campaign states like Nevada. But it would be a mistake to believe that all Mormons plan to vote for Romney this fall. Some Mormon conservatives feel strongly about Ron Paul’s economic message, and a substantial minority of us-about 15 to 20 percent--are Democrats and will vote for Barack Obama this November.
However we vote and whatever happens to Mitt Romney, Mormons across the political spectrum are riveted by the kind of attention our faith is getting in the national media. Mormons know that our religion seems exotic and even esoteric, and we chuckle when we compare sensationalistic media depictions of Mormonism to our everyday lives. Surveys show that most Americans still have little to no understanding of what Mormons believe. Mormon habits of social insularity may inadvertently contribute to this understanding: like many religious minorities, LDS people often prefer to socialize and marry within our own communities.
But 2012 will challenge Latter-day Saints to retool their relationship to the American public and public scrutiny. Demand for information about Romney and his background will build as he marches towards the GOP nomination. Certainly there will be thoughtful, in-depth reporting on Mormon history, belief, and culture. Many Mormons are also nervous that media outlets will try to “expose” LDS temple ceremonies that the community honors in private.
No doubt, anti-Mormon comments and attitudes will continue to bubble up during the presidential campaign. Memories of anti-Mormon persecution are deep-seated, dating to the nineteenth-century mob violence that took the life of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith and spurred our mass migration to Utah. Today, Mormons enjoy prosperity, safety, and well-being in the United States. But there is a tendency in our community to treasure old feelings of persecution. I believe we can do better. We can put our own experience of anti-Mormonism to work in the service of others. We can use our awareness of how it feels to be misunderstood and mistreated to build solidarity with other minorities in the U.S.--particularly Muslims, a community of faith that faces far greater discrimination than Mormons now do. If we find it painful when our faith is stereotyped as a cult, how must American Muslims feel when they are stereotyped as terrorists? This campaign year offers an opportunity to refine and adjust our perspective on anti-Mormonism.
Finally, this year will bring an opportunity for self-examination as controversial dimensions of our Mormonism come in for increased scrutiny. Mormons tend to be very careful about the way we present ourselves in public. This guardedness is a legacy of our rocky transition into modern American society. In the late nineteenth-century, a national movement against polygamy planted in the American imagination an image of Mormons as deviant, crazed, alien, and untrustworthy and stripped some LDS people of their rights to vote and serve on juries. Consequently, for most of the twentieth century, Mormons tried very hard to present ourselves as exemplary conservative citizens. We continue to be very reluctant to acknowledge contentious facets of our tradition, including the practice of polygamy and its continuation in Mormon doctrine today, the historic ban on full participation by people of African descent, and our record of activism against equal rights for women and LGBT people. Even within our own communities, LDS people have not processed many of these issues. Talking about difficult issues with authenticity and candor is a way to acknowledge our shared humanity and to foster growth, reconciliation, and understanding.
Whatever happens to Mitt Romney, 2012 will bring opportunities for Mormons if we take strength in our faith and, in the words of one of our hymns, “do what is right, let the consequence follow.”
Joanna Brooks is a columnist for ReligionDispatches.org and the author of “The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith.”