In August, I reviewed J.B. Haws’ recent article “When Mormonism Mattered Less in Presidential Politics: George Romney’s 1968 Window of Possibilities”, published in the summer issue of the Journal of Mormon History. Haws, an Assistant Professor of Church History at BYU, graciously agreed to participate in a Q & A to answer some of my lingering questions and those submitted by members of the JI community. In the course of our conversation, we also discussed how the research he presented in his article is extended in his forthcoming (and highly-anticipated!) book, The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception (Oxford, December 2013), which promises to be an important and much-needed addition to our understanding of Mormonism in the contemporary period, as well as of public representations (and misrepresentations) of Mormonism across the last half of the 20th century.
JBH: I should say, by way of preface, that as I read through your questions, my reaction after every one was to think, “Wow—great question.” But I’m going to resist typing that every time (but just know I’m still thinking that!). Thanks for these thoughtful and thought-provoking questions.
CHJ: Thank you, J. B.! We’re excited that you were willing to offer us some answers. So—let’s get to it!
My understanding of your larger project is that it examines multiple voices in the conversation that has crafted the Saints’ public image over the last half-century. Can you say a bit more here about who the key players are? I’m particularly interested in what role you see the Church itself playing.
JBH: You’ve characterized the project well. I’ve thought about it as a give-and-take dialogue of sorts, with some major players who are always involved, and some other voices that show up periodically. The LDS Church is a major player—and interspersed throughout the book is something of an institutional history of the Public Affairs Department (and its predecessors). The media is another major actor in this dialogue—and that includes traditional and new media. Evangelical Christians are major players, as are individual Mormons (celebrity, disaffected, cultural, etc.). And then there are what might be called “special interest groups”—an imprecise catch-all for groups that have coalesced, officially and unofficially, because of specific issues or shared background: the academy, racial/ethnic groups, pop culture superstars, political action groups, etc.
In many ways, and as might be expected, the LDS Church is at the center of the story because the book’s interest is really in questions of action and reaction: what did the Church do, and how did groups A, B, C, react?; what did group D do, and how did the Church react, and how did group A and C respond to that reaction? And so on.
CHJ: A number of people in the JI community are interested in your methods. What sorts of sources have you used, and how do you approach them methodologically speaking? In particular, do you do any quantitative analysis of media coverage, à la Jan Shipps’ approach to the Mormon image in magazines in her classic essay “From Satyr to Saint”?
JBH: Thank goodness for Jan Shipps! I gratefully tip my hat to her.
No, I didn’t do any quantitative analysis of media coverage. But I am really indebted to Jan Shipps’s ingenious and thorough work, as well as to the work of others who have done similar quantitative studies. Among others, Richard Cowan and five of his graduate students at BYU deserve mention. They’ve done some really important stuff with national periodical coverage, decade by decade.
This question of sources is an important one. In the end, the study is certainly an impressionistic one. The metaphor I keep coming back to is one of a photo collage. If every bit of evidence is a snapshot, what the study tries to do is to step back and ask, “What does the collage look like when this handful of snapshots predominated? What about when newer snapshots were added? How does that change the coloring? The shade? The shape?”
I’m struck by something that Ben Park reminded us in his JI post to introduce the “Mormonism’s Many Images” series in May. He quoted Catherine Brekus: “perception can be as important as reality in shaping historical events.” So the book tries to get at bits of evidence that speak to “reality” as well as to “perception.”
Those bits of evidence include things like public opinion data; media profiles of the LDS Church and its members; archived records that demonstrate the significance, timing, and deliberations over Church initiatives; books, movies, plays, and, just as important it seems, reviews of those books, movies, plays; oral histories—and luckily some oral histories were recorded at various points during the past half-century, such that interviews can give a sense of the “feeling in the air”; and, in the spirit of Catherine Brekus’s assertion, statements from influential commentators who offered their opinions about the public’s perception of Mormonism. Often what is repeated enough as “accepted wisdom” becomes accepted wisdom!
CHJ: How did you deal with the question of the exposure your material received to American audiences? In other words, how did you determine whether your sources were influential? Did you track publication volume, circulation, saturation, etc.?
JBH: A little bit of everything, in a case by case basis, depending on what evidence could be assembled. A couple of examples: data from a research firm hired by the LDS Church to measure readership of its Reader’s Digest inserts; comparison of headline hits in national or major regional periodicals for “God Makers” (very few hits/mentions) and “Mark Hofmann” (hundreds of hits); book sales numbers; viewership estimates at movie screenings of The God Makers; Homefront broadcasting statistics; Pew reports and Google graphs tracking social media trends.
CHJ: Speaking of Pew reports, as I read your article, I was struck by your use of polling data. In some cases, when you were comparing polls from George Romney’s campaign in the 1960s to data collected during Mitt Romney’s campaigns of the last decade, it felt to me as though you were comparing apples and oranges. For example, not only are the questions not the same, but in some cases there are serious differences of kind — as when the “probably” or “less likely” options given during Mitt Romney’s era don’t exist in the polls you cite from his father’s era (see for example p. 101, n. 10). How did you deal with those differences in the raw data?
JBH: Knowing what to do with polling data is always a trick, especially in this case when polling about the Mormons’ reputation has been really spotty over the past five decades. You’re right, too, about the difficulties in reading too much into polls when the categories are different.
And while the polls might offer some starting benchmarks, they really aren’t the heart of the argument. On the surface, it seemed in the 2008 campaign season that public opinion numbers had not changed all that much since the late sixties. Gallup found in 1967, for example, that 75 percent of voters would not hesitate to vote for a Mormon for president, all other qualifications being equal. In that poll, only 17 percent of voters said definitively that they would not vote for a Mormon. Forty years later, the results of a December 2006 Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll did not seem all that different: voters were asked if they could vote for a Mormon if “your party nominated” the candidate, and he or she was “in general agreement with you on most issues.” Only 14 percent said that they could not vote for a Mormon in that scenario.
But when the question was asked in a different way, the numbers told a different story. A December 2006 ABC News/Washington Times poll left out the qualifiers about a party’s nomination, or the issue-based agreement, and simply asked if certain “attributes [that] might be found in a candidate . . . would make you more [or less] likely to vote for that candidate for president”; 35% of respondents said that they would be “less likely” to vote for a Mormon candidate. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey that same month was even bleaker from the Mormon standpoint. More than half of the respondents—53 percent—said “they were very uncomfortable or have some reservations about voting for a presidential candidate who is Mormon.”
So depending on how the questions were asked, the numbers could be all over the place. More than anything, these numbers hint at something that does seem to have changed: tone. In 1968, it was as if the newsworthy result was that, remarkably, three-quarters of the nation’s population would have no problem voting for a Mormon—a sign of just how far Mormons had come, considering a past relationship with the American public that had been, to say the least, troubled. By the 2008 campaign, however, it was as if the newsworthy fact was that, remarkably, one-quarter to one-third of Americans would be less likely to vote for a Mormon—and this in a day when the calls for, and celebration of, tolerance and pluralism had never been louder.
So even with the imprecision for comparisons because of the nuances of phrasing and modifiers, etc., the book’s argument is driven less by the results of the polls (although those still suggest a lot), and more by the fact of the polls in 2008—their frequency, their prominence as “headline news,” their role in fueling a public sense that Mormonism mattered in new ways, etc.
Perhaps the one place that polls do take on a more central place in the book’s argument is about the decade of the 1980s. A Gallup poll in 1977 found that 54% of Americans ranked Mormonism on the favorable side of a numeric scale; in 1991, a Barna poll found that only 27%–half the 1977 total—viewed Mormons “favorably.” Even though the format of the respective polls was slightly different, the stark difference seems difficult to ignore.
So this was a long answer to say that polls most often offer starting points in the argument rather than the conclusive evidence.
Note to JI Readers: This conversation will continue with more in-depth discussion of Haws’ use of popular culture sources and interpretations of his evidence. Tune in on Monday, November 4!