Republicans, Romneys, and Mormon Moments: American Images of the LDS in the 1950s

By September 17, 2012

Mitt Romney is a politician born not in the wrong place, but the wrong time. While his opponents in the Republican primary accused him of untrustworthy geographic origins and thus of not being a real Republican, in fact Romney is simply running sixty years too late. If this were 1952 instead of 2012, the ?Massachusetts moderate? would have enjoyed a political climate that twice elected Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower?the father of such massive government spending projects as the interstate highway system, who spoke openly of the value of organized labor for protecting working Americans [1]. As many have asserted during this election cycle, past Republican luminaries would not survive in their own party after its hard turn to the right in recent decades.

But Romney would not only have benefited from the more moderate politics of Eisenhower?s era. The 1950s also represented the high water mark for the nation?s perceptions of its Mormon citizens. Indeed, Eisenhower was also representative in this. Throughout his two terms in office he had two Latter-day Saints in high positions in his administration. Apostle Ezra Taft Benson, later the Church?s thirteenth President, was Secretary of Agriculture. Mormon wife and mother Ivy Baker Priest served eight years as the nation?s Treasurer. Profiles of both in the national news prominently?and positively?featured their religion [2]. The President, too, valued and respected their Mormonism: at his first Cabinet meeting, he asked Apostle Benson to lead the opening prayer [3].

The Mormons flourished in other parts of American culture as well. They were widely praised for their fervent support of the Boy Scouts of America, teaching young men the self-reliance and life skills that would make them the leaders of the future. The emphasis on such values dovetailed nicely with the mid-20th century rage for the nation?s pioneer past. Americans embraced the rugged Saints who made the Utah desert blossom alongside other mythic (or mythologized) pioneer figures like the historical Davy Crockett, the fictional Lone Ranger, and the entertaining Gene Autry [4]. Movies like the 1940 epic Brigham Young: Frontiersman and the 1950 Western Wagon Master, directed by John Ford, vividly depicted Mormon faith and fortitude in the face of overwhelming hardships as they settled the intermountain West in the 19th century [5]. American historians also treated the subject, from Bernard DeVoto?s The Year of Decision: 1846 (1942) to Wallace Stegner?s The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail (1964) [6]. Wherever Americans turned, they were confronted with images of Mormon pioneering and piety.

Perhaps the pinnacle of the heroic Mormon pioneer image was the work of non-Mormon John D. Fitzgerald, the author of the still-popular Great Brain series of children?s books. Before he began to rewrite his family story for American children, Fitzgerald published the family memoir Papa Married a Mormon (1955) [7]. Fitzgerald described how his parents?Roman Catholic Papa and Mormon Mama?created an ideal Judeo-Christian community in the midst of a mix of Mormon and miner neighbors in a rough and tumble frontier town in the 1890s. When he moved to Utah, Fitzgerald told readers, Papa decided to ?judge men by the contribution they made to science, culture, social and economic progress, tolerance, patriotism, spiritual leadership, and their regard for the well-being of their fellow men? [8]. Not  their religion. And because Fitzgerald?s parents couldn?t decide after their marriage whose religion they should follow, they began holding their own Sunday observances at home, eventually welcoming Methodists, Baptists, and a Jew into their worship [9]. The Fitzgeralds raised their children to choose their own faiths, and eventually one son followed his mother into Mormonism while the three other children became Roman Catholics?all without any family discord. At a time when, in self-conscious contrast to the anti-religious Soviet Union, Americans sought to smooth over their differences and highlight common characteristics of their many faiths, Fitzgerald described a community where ?all men [realized] they were God?s children and when they hurt by word or deed another man, they were hurting God??and he placed Mormons at the center of this vision of tolerant, God-centered faith [10].

Contemporary Saints demonstrated their zeal for bringing their religion and their nation together in 1962, in a much-celebrated appearance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during the first American international satellite broadcast. In the midst of what a 2010 New York Times article called ?a blast of American culture and technological prowess,? which included a few minutes of a baseball game at Chicago?s Wrigley Field and a Presidential news conference, the choir assembled in front of Mt. Rushmore to serenade the world with American values. Their musical selections? The generic Protestant hymn ?A Mighty Fortress Is Our God? and the American anthem ?The Battle Hymn of the Republic? [11].

These halcyon days of the American Mormon image in the mid-20th century served another Republican Romney well?Mitt?s father George. George Romney, a successful automobile executive in the 1940s and ?50s, was elected Governor of Michigan in 1962 and was a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 and 1968. (Romney did not seek the nomination in 1964. He withdrew from the Republican primary in 1968 after comments criticizing American actions in Vietnam and reversing his position on the war made him appear both inconsistent and insensitive.)  But the younger Romney faces a vastly different political and religious landscape in his own 21st-century presidential bid.

As Jan Shipps has observed, in the nascent days of the counterculture movement the Mormons served as a safe, clean-cut, traditionally all-American alternative to ?scruffy hippies? and the dramatic cultural changes they represented [12]. The Latter-day Saints fit the idealized image of white, heterosexual, middle-class family perfection so well in large part because the community had for decades adopted an accommodationist stance toward mainstream American culture. But after the sweeping changes of the 1960s, Mormon mores were left behind as many Americans embraced freer attitudes about race relations, gender roles, and sex. According to Armand Mauss, the Church (if not all of its members) responded like many of the conservative evangelicals who began to appropriate Republican politics in the 1980s: they retrenched [13]. As the culture moved away from the Ozzie and Harriet ideal many LDS not only didn?t move with it, but rather emphasized anew their tradition?s differences.

And thus we find the younger Romney facing not only a politically immoderate Republican Party, but also an American culture that treats his religion without much moderation. His father benefitted from heroic pop culture Saints like the Mormon pioneers who helped expand American territory and the uber-patriotic and generically Judeo-Christian Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But when 21st-century Americans think of Mormons they?re more likely to conjure images of sexist and sexually deviant polygamists on Big Love and Sister Wives, naïve buffoons on South Park and The Book of Mormon, and illiberal and oppressive supporters of California?s ban on gay marriage.

It makes me wonder?when his fellow Republicans hearken back to a simpler time in American life that better expressed their values, does Mitt Romney think not only of Ozzie and Harriet, but also of Brigham Young and The Great Brain?




[1] The Eisenhower Presidential Museum and Library website includes several quotations in which Eisenhower strongly praised labor unions, including: “I have no use for those?regardless of their political party?who hold some foolish dream of spinning the clock back to days when unorganized labor was a huddled, almost helpless mass. ? Speech to the American Federation of Labor, New York City, 9/17/52″

[2] See, for example, Chicago Tribune, ?Benson Choice Hailed by Taft Backers in Utah,? (November 25, 1952); New York Times, ?Treasurer Choice in Politics since 10? (November 26, 1952); William Fulton, ?Ike Gives Woman 2 Key Jobs,? Chicago Tribune (November 26, 1952); Paul P. Kennedy, ?Benson Stresses Church, Family,? New York Times (February 1, 1953).

[3] New York Times, ?Cabinet Meetings Open with Prayer? (February 1, 1953).

[4] Seymour Korman, ?Mormons Build a City, a Faith in Utah Desert,? New York Times (August 20, 1952).

[5] Brigham Young: Frontiersman, dir. Henry Hathaway (USA: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation, 1940), starring Dean Jagger as Brigham Young and Vincent Price as Joseph Smith; Wagon Master, dir. John Ford (USA: RKO Radio Pictures, 1950), starring a number of Ford?s regular actors, including Ward Bond and Harry Carey, Jr.

[6] DeVoto (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1943) and Stegner (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964). Interestingly, both men were non-Mormons who had spent part of their childhoods in Utah; both also wrote multiple pieces on the Latter-day Saints. While neither was wholly flattering in their depictions of the Saints, they were both more fair in their attention to and their tellings of Mormon history than many other non-Mormon American authors.

[7] The Great Brain series premiered with a book of that name in 1967 (New York: Dial Press), and later inspired a TV movie adaptation starring Jimmy Osmond (USA: National Broadcasting Company, 1978).

[8] Fitzgerald, Papa Married a Mormon (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1955), 51.

[9] 137.

[10] 135.

[11] Kirk Johnson, ?Mormons on a Mission,? New York Times (August 20, 2010). Online at See also John W. Finney, ?Telstar to Send Kennedy Parley,? New York Times (July 18, 1962); Larry Wolters, ?Kennedy to Be in Telecast by Satellite,? Chicago Tribune (July 18, 1962); New York Times, ?Telstar Program Hailed in Europe: 18-Nation Audience Placed at 100,000,000 Persons? (July 24, 1962).

[12] ?Surveying the Mormon Image since 1960,? Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 100.

[13] See Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994).

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Current Events Politics Popular Culture


  1. Thanks, Cristine. Fascinating stuff.

    Your post provides some good context for my Pioneer Day post last July on the 1947 dedication of the This is the Place Monument.

    Comment by David G. — September 17, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

  2. I have to admit that I am not very strong on Mormonism’s reception in the mid-to-late 20th century. When did the professionalized counter ministries come into swing? Was Ed Decker prototypical?

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 17, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

  3. @David G. Yes! I love your post on the centennial and dedication of the This Is the Place Monument! There’s definitely more to be said about the intersection of Mormon and wider American interests in historic sites and monuments in the mid-20th century.

    @J. Stapley, my own research has focused more on “popular” responses to the Mormons than on counter-ministries. I’ve actually largely avoided such materials, except as people became more broadly aware of it (ie it shows up in the New York Times, whether in ads or reviews, or in a profile of a minor cultural phenomenon). That said, if I’m remembering correctly, the Tanners/Utah Lighthouse Ministry showed up in the 1960s, but counter-ministries proliferated during the 1970s as conservative evangelicals began to fight back against the cultural changes of the ’60s. *The God Makers* came out in 1982.

    This high point for the Mormon image ran from about 1940 until about 1965. After the mid-1960s, there was a new focus among liberals on certain negative stereotypes like theocracy and attitudes about race and gender, and more broadly in popular culture on images of Mormon violence.

    Comment by Cristine — September 17, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

  4. This is great, Cristine, and important context for the elder Romney’s fairly successful political career and for Mormonism’s relationship to its larger culture more generally. Thanks.

    Tangential aside: I admit to knowing almost nothing about Ivy Baker Priest. Has anyone done good biographical work on her?

    Comment by Christopher — September 17, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

  5. Fascinating.

    Comment by Saskia — September 18, 2012 @ 1:50 am

  6. Chris, I too know very little about Ivy Baker Priest beyond what the newspaper profiles in the 1950s told me. I do know that she published a memoir, *Green Grows Ivy*, in ’58. I can also tell you that a quick search for other biographies turned up nothing. It appears that there’s a chapter on her in the 1996 book *Worth Their Salt: Notable but Often Unnoted Women of Utah* (USU Press).

    Comment by Cristine — September 18, 2012 @ 8:52 am

  7. Bay Buchanan was another Mormon woman who served as treasurer of the United States–during the Reagan administration. She came to New York once to give a talk to a group of church members–I don’t remember any details–but a friend tried to interest a reporter from the Wall Street Journal in covering the event. The response? A rather curt “she doesn’t make policy.”

    As to the Original Post: I’m not sure if “politically immoderate Republican Party” and “illiberal and oppressive” represent your feelings or the feelings of the “21st Century Americans” you refer to. But I suspect that the half of the population which appears poised to vote for the Republican nominee for President, and which almost certainly will return a Republican majority to the House of Representatives, would probably disagree with that characterization of their party of choice. The majority of California voters who approved the defining of marriage as a union between a man and a woman may find the words “illiberal and oppressive” objectionable as well.

    And don’t get me started on “hearken” and “hark.” That’s as fruitless an exercise as trying to teach people how to conjugate “lie” and “lay.”

    Comment by Mark B. — September 18, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

  8. Mark B. – Thank you for your comments. I’m not surprised that reporters would be so dismissive of a woman and a Latter-day Saint as a person of political interest, particularly in the 1980s. I’ve found that negative images of the Saints were running high during that period. I’m guessing that the fact that she was there to speak to a religious gathering and not a political or policy group also influenced the reporter’s response.

    My description of the Republican Party as “politically immoderate” refers to the judgment of a wide variety of contemporary observers. People inside the Republican Party, as well as many on the outside, have expressed concern in this election cycle that the Party has become too strictly ideological, thus making it difficult for Republicans to widen their base. One prominent example is the Republican former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush, who has made remarks to that effect in a variety of venues this summer. (See, for example, coverage on Fox and in the New York Times. You can easily find other coverage and video on the web by searching for “Jeb Bush Republican Party.”)

    “Illiberal and repressive” is a reference to popular characterizations of the Latter-day Saints, particularly with regard to the ways in which many Americans viewed LDS involvement with Prop 8 in California. I had hoped that my description of Americans “conjur[ing] images” indicated that, but I’m sorry it was unclear.

    As for my grammatical errors, I don’t have any better explanation than human frailty. I’ll certainly be more careful about hark/hearken in the future!

    Comment by Cristine — September 19, 2012 @ 9:35 am

  9. I remember similar criticisms of the Republican Party in the summer of 1976, when they helped Gerald Ford win the party’s nomination for president.

    The “centrist” wing of the party, and the liberal punditocracy, raised the same issues about the Republicans in 1980. They were right, of course, as we all learned when Jimmy Carter was swept to a second term and Ronald Reagan rode off into the sunset, never to be heard from again. : )

    Comment by Mark B. — September 19, 2012 @ 10:07 am


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