While Mitt Romney has secured his front-runner status in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, questions about his religion still linger in many people’s minds—Will evangelical Christians vote for him? How would a Mormon act as president? And what do Mormons really believe?
For a closer look at the intersection of Mormonism and American politics, Moment speaks with journalist and religion scholar Joanna Brooks. A veteran of the Mormon feminist and LGBT movements, Brooks covers Mormonism, faith and politics for ReligionDispatches.org. She is author of American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of African-American and Native American Literatures, and was named one of “50 Politicos to Watch” by Politico.com.
MM: What are the biggest misconceptions about Mormonism today?
JB: Surveys show that a large portion of everyday Americans still imagine that contemporary Mormons practice polygamy. This is not true. People who practice polygamy are members of ultra-Orthodox splinter groups who live in remote regions of Utah and Arizona—they don’t represent the mainstream Latter Day Saints church with 6 million members. But it’s been very difficult to eradicate that connection from the contemporary imagination.
I think a second misconception is that all Mormons think alike and plan to vote alike for Mitt Romney. That’s not true—there’s political diversity among the Mormon community on the right and on the left. There’s a solid 10-15 percent of Mormons who are Democrats and will vote for Barack Obama this fall. And on the right, there are some for whom Romney is simply not conservative enough. Everyone feels a strong kinship to Romney because of our shared tradition but not everyone’s going to vote for him.
With Romney looking more and more like the GOP nominee, so many people are writing about Mormonism in the media, but very few of them are actually familiar with contemporary Mormon communities. Every day I read pieces from The New York Times to Rolling Stone where authors who have very marginal knowledge of Mormon theology and the Mormon community are weighing in on the tradition and cherry-picking elements of what they know and trying to draw connections with Romney’s campaign. Mormons have been a fairly insular community: Mormons tend to marry amongst ourselves and for the first hundred years of our history we were geographically isolated in the American West. We still don’t have a large contingent of talking heads.
MM: How do you think religion will play out in South Carolina this weekend, and in the general election this fall?
JB: I think we’re seeing less knee-jerk anti-Mormonism than we did four years ago. Four years ago there were campaigns about Mormon polygamy, tying Mitt to arcane, ultra-Orthodox strains of thought—sort of like making Joe Leiberman out to be a Hasidic Jew. Random things 19th century theologians said were being plastered on post cards and mailed out to South Carolina voting households in 2008. But we are seeing less overt anti-Mormon messaging at this point in the campaign. I think it’s to the credit of the GOP field that folks aren’t smearing Mitt Romney by smearing his religion. Where people are opposing him on religious grounds is for not being conservative enough on social issues. So for example, supporters of Rick Santorum were using his softness on abortion rights while he was governor of Massachusetts as ammunition against him. I think the old prejudices remain, but that’s not what’s being openly discussed.
MM: How are Mormons responding to Romney’s candidacy, and what was his role as a bishop years ago? What about Huntsman?
JB: It’s important to know that there are about 30,000 LDS bishops worldwide. We’re an all-lay clergy; any man who’s of age and is responsible can come up for a job as bishop. So Romney’s not necessarily special because he served in church leadership—that’s a pretty common experience for adult men in our community.
There are a great number of Romney supporters and a lot of people feel a sense of kinship because of our shared culture and our shared tradition. Huntsman too, but Romney was always more popular. Romney’s really been out in front and has captured loyalties with a great number of Mormons very early on. He has been using family networks among Mormons to bring in donors, bundlers and volunteers. But Huntsman was a very well regarded governor of Utah—people like his as well.
MM: What are some of the issues that are most important to Mormon voters today?
JB: Ah, yes. Mormon voters. All over the map. But lots of us depend on public schools for our kids and care about public education. Many Mormons are also deeply concerned about the national debt. LGBT issues have been brought to the fore in LDS communities—with most Mormons leaning conservative, but a strong minority in vocal support of LGBT equality. And a small but growing contingent of LDS people are committed environmentalists.
MM: Do you think Romney and Huntsman represent a breakthrough of Mormonism into mainstream culture? To adapt a Jewish phrase, has their presence in the race been “good for Mormons”?
JB: This is a fascinating moment. I think every American minority has moments when the mainstream realizes it has to come to grips with another culture living in their midst. Mormons have been here in the United States since the beginning. We’ve been assimilating into the American mainstream since the early 20th century. We’re between 5 and 6 million. We’re not just in the Intermountain West. So this is a fascinating moment of reflection for us, as America comes to terms with its lack of knowledge about us.
But it’s also a fascinating moment as Mormons are being asked to reflect on aspects of our past that are controversial. There’s a lot of press about the historic ban on African American priest holding, which in my opinion was a mistake and never had a doctrinal basis. So the issues about our past that are uncomfortable to talk about are going to be brought up and how we respond—if we’re willing to respond with candor and with some self-searching—is going to be a real test of our character.