The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception
Oxford University Press, 2013
424 pp., $31.95
Neil J. Young
Mormons in the American Mind
Growing up in central Florida, I did not go to the beach for spring break. Instead, nearly every March my family would escape the swampy humidity of Orlando for the crisp mountain air of Utah. Skiing throughout the week, we'd often take one day from the slopes to rest our legs and explore Salt Lake City—which usually meant a visit to Temple Square, the institutional and symbolic heart of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There, earnest missionaries would bear their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ brought about by the prayerful seeking of a young Joseph Smith. We'd exchange knowing glances at these moments; we were Southern Baptists, and we knew a lot about Mormonism. A good bit of that knowledge, it turned out, was erroneous, but it was the product of a concerted effort begun by the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s to make its members more mindful of Mormonism, a "heretical" faith that was gaining sizeable Baptist converts.
Southern Baptists weren't the only ones who have been thinking a lot about Mormons, as J. B. Haws shows in his deeply researched and engagingly written book The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception. Haws, a historian at Brigham Young University, examines how Americans from all walks of life have responded to the increased visibility of the LDS Church and its members in American political, social, and cultural life since the end of the 1960s.
The Mormon Image is bookended with the tale of two Romneys: George Romney's 1968 run for president and his son Mitt's 2008 and 2012 bids for the White House. In 1968, George Romney faced hardly any questions about his faith, a fortunate inheritance from JFK's history-making victory eight years prior. If anything, Americans saw Romney's Mormonism as an asset, proof that he was a trustworthy and upstanding man. A 1967 Gallup poll found 75 percent of voters had no hesitation voting for a Mormon for president. Yet forty years later, Mormonism likely prevented Mitt Romney from capturing his party's nomination. In 2007, 29 percent of Republicans had indicated they "probably or definitely" would not vote for a Mormon. As Haws writes, "being a Mormon in the public eye meant something different in 2008 than it did in 1968."
Haws' book investigates that change through a series of what he calls "Mormon moments," arguing that Americans have generally regarded the LDS Church differently from how they have viewed individual Mormons. The Saints have enjoyed high praise from many of their fellow Americans, who have admired their patriotism, dutifulness, and family-centered lives; the church, however, strikes many people as secretive, conspiratorial, and power-hungry. A series of public events—from the Equal Rights Amendment to Prop 8, from the priesthood ban on African Americans to the Mark Hofmann forgery scandal—hardened those perceptions in the American mind. Many of these episodes are well-trod ground, but Haws renders them anew with his particular interest in how they shaped Americans' attitudes toward the LDS Church.
In one of the book's best sections, Haws re-creates the tense moments on the campus of BYU around 1970 when the school's athletic program became the target for protests against the church's ban on African American priesthood. Threatened with boycotts from its competitors and embarrassing protests at athletic events, BYU scrambled to combat misconceptions about Mormonism and the university by publicizing the presence of black students on campus and by increasing their recruiting of African American athletes. A sympathetic profile from Sports Illustrated helped the cause. Indeed, Haws points, the backlash against BYU faded far before the church's 1978 decision to lift the priesthood ban. Student protests had fallen out of favor; Americans were tired of campus unrest, and the LDS Church benefitted from this societal shift.
It's an important reminder that larger historical forces are always at work, but Haws directs us back to the workings of the LDS Church and its Church Information Service (now known as Public Affairs) in shaping and spreading a particular image of Mormonism as family-centered. After the negativity of the civil rights issue, the LDS Church intended a vigorous emphasis on family to create more positive associations for the faith. A series of family-focused television spots called Homefront bombarded the airwaves in the 1970s and upended Americans' ideas about the church. Asked what they thought of when they heard the word "Mormon," Americans had responded to a church survey taken before the commercials aired with answers like "polygamy" and "racist." But after the Homefront series ran, the number one response Mormon pollsters received was "family: 'You're the Church that believes in families.' "