Remember the emotional faces and powerful words of African Americans four years ago, as the country was voting whether to elect the first black president? You won’t see much of that among Mormon Americans, regardless of Tuesday’s outcome.
Sure, there will be celebrating or mourning among Mormons who describe themselves as political conservatives (which is to say, most of them). But most members of Mitt Romney’s faith won’t even be at results-watching events; church officials are barely acknowledging Tuesday’s vote (the top item on the LDS Web site says: “members invited to share the gospel through magazine subscriptions”); and even at the Northwest D.C. Mormon church a President Romney would attend, regular weekly classes are all that’s scheduled Tuesday night.
I’ve interviewed many Mormons in recent weeks about the campaign (and the previous Romney campaign in 2008, when the media-declared Mormon Moment began), and their views on what has been a historic period for Mormonism sound remarkably unaffected. Despite growing up in a period when the word “cult” is the one most associated with Mormonism, Mormons largely downplay what a big deal Romney’s race (and win, or loss) has been.
They are unlikely, despite supporting him in massive numbers, to say his faith has anything to do with their attraction to him, instead talking about his morals or his thriftiness or what a great job he did with the Olympics. They say they don’t think Americans ultimately cared much about Romney’s Mormonism, and they say they won’t see a Romney win or loss as a referendum on their shared faith.
“Heavens no,” Jared Whitley, a 34-year-old Mormon government relations worker from Arlington said when asked if he’ll take it personally whether Romney wins or loses. Whitley moved from Salt Lake City to Washington in 2005 specifically in hopes of working for candidate Romney for the 2008 race and has been a supporter since. “I think the questions around his faith have already been explored,” he said.
This response is revealing about Mormon culture, which is guarded due to prejudice and insularity and very into what people characterize as modesty. While many Americans (including us in the media) see Romney’s almost total halt in discussion of his faith as at least in good part political calculation, many Mormons see someone not bragging.
“I respect that” Romney didn’t speak much about his faith in the 2012 race, said John Mason, 52, a general contractor and a Mormon from Fairfax County. “You hate to toot your own horn when it comes to such service. And having served as a bishop and stake president, Romney would have much to toot his horn about.”
This reserved attitude seems to supercede even Mormon lore, which includes a story many Mormons tell that their founders believed one day the U.S. Constitution would hang by a thread and be saved by the Mormon church. Asked if 2012 is that moment, Mormons typically chuckle and start talking about how they like their reputation as hard-working, patriotic and loyal.
There’s a major hesitance to connect their church — which for many is the center of their life — with this moment.
But even if the expression is understated, this election has changed life for many Mormon Americans. Romney’s run has paved the way for stories every Mormon seems to have of someone asking them about polygamy at their kid’s soccer game, or the neighbor’s teenager asking if they believe Jesus Christ is the son of God. Or about mundane things, like why they spend at least three hours every Sunday at church.
Shandi Hill, a 28-year-old Alexandria lobbyist who has worked for Romney in both campaigns, said she’s become the go-to Mormon at her office and in her liberal neighborhood of Del Ray. And she’s loved it.
“We’ve been given an amazing opportunity to talk about the church and that’s never happened to us. I’ve tried to take advantage of that as much as possible,” said Hill, who has been working the neighborhood for Romney and polls Tuesday.
Asked if she will feel a Romney vote reflects Americans’ views of Mormons, Hill said “not at all.” Her next words drove home the point further: “It would be great to work in a [Romney] administration. The personal side it, I’ve put in a lot of hours. For me it will be a disappointment because I fully believe in him as a candidate. It’s like: Do people think I’m dumb because I’m blonde?”
But there have been year after year — and perhaps four more, or eight more — of those soccer field-side conversations that are powerful for Mormons.
Hill talked about how her Romney work led her to talk with non-Mormons about the faith’s belief that families remain together after death, including friends who have lost loved ones in recent years. She thinks those conversations, and her convictions, provided them some solace.
J.C. Richards, a Mormon real estate consultant from McLean, remembers being stopped by the teenage son of a neighbor and other conversations during Romney’s run.
“I think a Romney win would be good for the United States in the sense that we are a pluralistic society. But also knowing Romney, and he’s a man of character,” he said. Then quickly added: “But I support him mainly for economic reasons.”
Wade Jacoby, a political science professor at Brigham Young University who is Mormon, said the quiet Mormon response to Election Day is typical. “Even Mormon wedding receptions are boring.”
For Mormons, he said, “there’s a keen and sober sense of the long run, a sober approach to life. For us this life is a test. You want to pass, yes, hopefully with high marks but also endure. We have this very keen sense of the length of it all .. there is a cultural sense of gravity that helps explain reticence. It’s good manners.”
If Romney wins, this may extend to the inauguration celebration when he takes office. Church officials speculate that he wouldn’t use an actual Book of Mormon — the faith’s unique scripture — but a Bible, used by the rest of Christianity.