It was a long way from American presidential politics, but as Romanians gathered around their dinner tables one day last week, a national television station aired a 20-minute segment on Mormon core values - close families, hard work, clean living and helping others.
Romanian Mormons were surprised, but pleased. With fewer than 3,000 of them in the country, they aren’t used to being on prime time.
Three days later and 1,500 miles to the west, curious journalists turned up at Mormon Sunday worship services in at least six separate congregations in France. The following day the church’s volunteer press spokesman in Paris took another dozen calls from reporters.
During that same week German, Spanish and Belgian media seemed to be falling over each other to add their own little waves to the tidal surge of worldwide attention that has washed over The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, especially in the past year.
Nowhere has that scrutiny been more intense than here in the United States. Dozens of interviews, hundreds of TV reports, thousands of articles and blog posts. Such is the consequence when a member of a minority religion is nominated by his party as a candidate for president of the United States.
The irony of all the attention is that it was not sought. From the very beginning of the presidential election campaign, the church reminded its members and the army of political reporters that dissects every jot and tittle of election campaigns that it has long been institutionally neutral in party politics.
To be sure, individual Mormons are encouraged like every other segment of the electorate to figure out for themselves the complex stew of economics, social values and foreign policy, and then to vote. But as far as the church as an institution is concerned, it’s strictly hands off: no voter guides, no use of the pulpit for political speeches, no ecclesiastical endorsements.
Mormons reacted to the sharp uptick in media attention in a variety of ways. Most seemed cautiously optimistic that increased interest would lead to better understanding of a faith that has often struggled to be understood. Others were worried that in the age of sound bites and rapid-fire Internet blog posts the richness and depth of their faith would be trivialized. It turned out both were right. Some Mormons even weighed into the fray with their own blogs and books.
Once the election was over, everyone confidently expected that attention from political reporters would drop off dramatically from the exhausting level where it has been. And indeed it did. The phones didn’t entirely stop ringing in the church’s public affairs offices on Wednesday this week, but there was a marked slowing down. The church’s media relations director left work a little early that afternoon to go home and rake leaves. He hasn’t raked leaves in a very long time.
But some journalists were still calling with questions: What did this period mean for the Mormons? Has it helped bring the church into “the mainstream?” What happens next?
Other writers have already addressed those questions, and the short answer is that this is a beginning, not an end.
Joel Kotkin wrote in the City Journal :
“Just as President Obama’s nomination and election marked a sea change in the country’s tortured racial history, so Romney’s nomination has changed religious boundaries that have persisted for more than 160 years.”
The day before Election Day, in his occasional “winners and losers” feature, Mike Allen of Politico, one of America’s most respected political commentators, listed four winners emerging from the election season. Three of them were individuals from each of the major parties. The fourth was “the Mormon Church.” His reason: the electorate decided that being a Mormon and holding high office is no longer an issue.
Other journalists have been even more generous, suggesting that in the past few months the “Mormon faith” has moved from being a liability to an asset.
It’s always risky to rush to historical judgments about short-term events. It may be years before we truly understand the impact of all of this on the church and its people, aside from any effect on the general public. But here are some preliminary reflections as the dust settles, from the perspective of an insider.
First, the church leadership has never believed this period is merely a “Mormon Moment.” They have much more of a long-range view.
Eight months ago, I wrote a column called “More than a Mormon Moment,” in which I traced the origin of that term to about the year 2000 and suggested that something much more fundamental was going on than a passing fad.
Since then, serious journalists have gotten to know us by dropping into church services, talking to our local leaders in their own homes, and joining us on service projects. Church leaders from the top down have reached out to – and have been invited by – dozens of community leaders including state governors, leaders of other faith groups and academics, all with the intent of providing more in depth understanding of the church, its people and practices.
It has all had a cumulative effect. The church has become more visible, more familiar, more accepted – especially among those who help shape public opinion. And frankly, we have become more transparent and for a once-persecuted minority, less defensive.
However, this has helped only to a point. More visibility is not necessarily the same as increased understanding. In reality, a presidential election campaign is probably the worst time to try to educate and inform, because politics by its nature is divisive and often shrill. Many people are ready to believe the worst if it comports with their political leanings. But with the heat and divisiveness of a political campaign behind us, thoughtful Mormons can now look to the possibility of having more serious discussions with others about our faith, and especially about how our theology translates into the way we live.
Mormons make up a small minority of the American public – about two percent. At rather more than six million, that’s the same number as American Jews. And, of course, we are a much younger faith than Judaism and our demographics show a generally younger population. But small minority or not, there is a sense among many church members that historians of the future will look back on 2012, not as the eclipse of a “Mormon Moment,” but as the beginning of the real emergence of American Mormons, with all of their distinctiveness, into the rich mosaic of American religious life.
Michael Otterson leads worldwide public affairs functions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
More On Faith and 2012:
Mason: ‘Mormon Moment’ RIP
Elizabeth Tenety: God after 2012: How did election change religion and politics landscape?
David Gibson: What’s next for religious conservatives?
Figuring Faith: Faith in 2012 by the numbers
Otterson: What lies ahead for Mormons?
Thistlethwaite: Compassion in chief: Why Obama won
Berlinerblau: An open letter to conservatives