Response: J.B. Haws Answers Questions about his recent JMH article and his forthcoming book (Part II)

By November 4, 2013

We’re pleased today to welcome back J.B. Haws for Part II of our Q & A on his recent article in the JMH and his forthcoming book, The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception (Oxford, December 2013), both exploring the changing image of Mormons in American media from George Romney’s presidential run in the 1960s to his son Mitt Romney’s campaigns in the early 21st century. Last time, we focused mainly on Haws’ methods and sources. Today, we’re exploring specific aspects of his analysis and a few of his conclusions.

CHJ: As I noted in my earlier JI review, I would have liked to see more set-up in your analysis of how Americans perceived Mormonism in George Romney’s era. Obviously Americans weren’t only basing their opinions of Mormonism and Mormons on news coverage, but rather were reading and viewing the news in light of a long train of earlier news, fiction, plays, movies, and even television programming. Will we see you engage more with the years before 1965 in the book? 

JBH: Yes?a little.  But this is why we need your book! 🙂  My chapter 2 deals with some important trends to set the mid-sixties stage, but mostly from the years of President David O. McKay?s administration (1951?1970): worldwide Church growth and building boom; the growth of BYU; the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; Mormon celebrities; the New York World?s Fair; etc. 

CHJ: And what about popular culture during the years on which your book is primarily focused? Will we see more fiction, film, and, of course, Broadway in the book?  

JBH: Yes?but not enough!  There are some things that pop up throughout the narrative, and there is a chapter (chapter 8) devoted to Mormonism in popular culture since 2000 (roughly).  That chapter deals with things like The Simpsons and South ParkUnder the Banner of Heaven and Big Love and Angels in America.  Mormon niche cinema also comes into play.  Non-fiction literature shows up much more in the book than fiction?that?s a gap I?m turning to you to fill!  The Book of Mormon musical takes a prominent part in the last chapter.   

CHJ: Thanks for the plug(s), JB. 🙂

Now, back to your work: I found myself particularly fascinated, as I read your article, by the ways in which this tale of two Romneys illustrates a lot about culture war politics in the United States over the last half-century, and more narrowly about the rightward drift of the modern Republican Party. How much is your narrative a history of American visions of Mormonism, and how much is it a story about changing visions of American party politics? 

JBH: Really insightful question.  My initial reaction to that is to say that evangelical Christianity is the common thread here.  I say in the book that the story is not about politics per se; the story is more about publicity than politics?yet nothing draws publicity like presidential politics!  What the publicity around Mitt Romney showed to the nation, as never before, was something people in the pews already knew?evangelical Protestants are conflicted, to say the least, about Mormons.  Evangelicals felt that way in 1968, too?it?s just that their voices didn?t register on the national radar like they do today, and they may not have perceived Mormons to be the threat that they do today. Without question, that does reflect a shift in the political realities of the nation.  It reflects the potency of the Religious Right.  But it also speaks to the growth (and the out-of-the-West ?diaspora?) of Mormonism.   Those two trends?Christians as a new force in Republican politics and Mormon growth around the country?really collided in the 1980s.  And 2008 and 2012 saw that drama reprised on a national stage. 

CHJ: Building on the last question, what do you make of the fact that time and time again, we can see Mormon politicians?George Romney, Orrin Hatch, Harry Reid, Mitt Romney, to name a few?politically positioned in an awkward middle that late-20th-century Americans?and perhaps more importantly the media?don’t know how to define? (A non-Romney example: I’ve long enjoyed how confused the national media seemed in the 1980s and early 1990s by Hatch’s refusal, despite his apparently pristine conservative credentials, to support the school prayer amendment AND by his cooperation with Senator Ted Kennedy on issues of government-supported health care for children.) Are Mormons really, despite our deeply-ingrained stereotypes of the conservative white, middle-class, well-populated all-American Mormon family, the ultimate moderates? 

JBH: This, to me, was an interesting subplot of the 2012 presidential campaign.  It?s probably too early to tell, but I think the public image of Mormons has begun to transcend the traditional Republican stereotype that you describe?and this on the heels, ironically, of a Mormon Republican presidential campaign!  I think a couple of things are at work here.  First, it seems the LDS Church?s conscientious and consistent and official non-partisanship gave space, for example, for Senator Harry Reid to very publicly endorse Gregory Prince?s editorial that Mitt Romney is not the face of Mormonism, and for Mormon Democrats to have a visible presence at the 2012 National Convention.  Then the sheer amount of press attention on Mormons led to a number of human-interest stories that highlighted diversity of all sorts within Mormonism.  And the individuals who became prominent unofficial media ?spokespeople? and were called upon to give a ?Mormon perspective? reflected a spectrum of thought and background that simply challenged easy categorization or stereotypes.  This is not to say that the American public walked away from the 2012 campaign with a new conception about the majority demographic within Mormonism, but rather with a new sense that the tent of Mormonism is wider than stereotypes would suggest.  JI?s Matt Bowman said it well on NPR: he suggested that Mitt Romney?s run had ?done a fair amount to refute the great myth of Mormonism: that it?s a monolith.? 

So I think it would be natural for people to look at diversity of this sort in one really cohesive religious community and conclude that Mormons, at heart, might be more moderate than they had earlier assumed. 

CHJ: Do you think the LDS Church?s ?I?m a Mormon? ad campaign helped with this? I know I had family members in swing-states calling me, when the campaign first showed up on their local airwaves, asking me if I thought the ads were meant to help Mitt Romney in advance of the 2012 campaign season. 

JBH: Absolutely. I think combating the ?monolith? idea was one of the chief aims of the ?I?m a Mormon? campaign.  I can?t really speak to any swing-state political motivations behind the campaign?that?s something I haven?t thought about before.  People involved in ?I?m a Mormon? that I talked to explicitly linked the broad launch of the ad campaign to The Book of Mormon musical.  Apparently the seeds of the campaign were in the works before Mitt Romney?s first run, and the ads were being tested in nine markets in the months before The Book of Mormon musical?s release.  What changed in the spring of 2011 was the decision to make it a nationwide campaign?and especially to cover NYC: subways, taxis, Times Square.  Kevin Kelly, advertising professor at BYU and ?I?m a Mormon? advisor, saw it this way: ?The [ad] campaign breaks down all the stereotypes that people think about Mormons. . . . You can?t define what a Mormon is just by looking at one profile.? [1]   

CHJ: Building on this idea of diversifying the Mormon image?and thus making the LDS public image look more like the rest of America?what do you think about the standard narrative of Americanization in the Mormon experience (which is really our narrative of most minority experience in the United States), in which the originally outcast minority moves from the margins and slowly progresses from mere toleration to acceptance and, eventually, absorption into the “mainstream”? Is the history of the Mormon image in the United States one of a steady, positive progression? 

JBH: I?m going to take Spencer Fluhman?s really smart line on this.  He?s noted that interpretive models like Americanization and assimilation have some value when considering Mormonism?s place in American culture, but those models all break down at some point.  

Martin Marty wrote in 1981, in his introduction to Klaus J. Hansen?s Mormonism and the American Experience, that ?by 1980, the Mormons had grown to be so much like everyone else or, perhaps, had so successfully gotten other Americans to be like them, that they no longer inspired curiosity for wayward ways.? I think his ?cutting both ways? formulation is telling.  It?s difficult to separate the two, especially considering the fact that, as people say over and over, Mormonism seems to be this quintessential American religion.  

The grand irony is that right after Marty wrote those words, Mormons in the 1980s looked as curious?and, to some, as kooky and cultish and dangerous?as ever.  So there are good reasons to see the progression of the Mormon image as more complicated than a steady trajectory toward the mainstream.  

Jan Shipps observed that she sees Mormons as now being in the ?cultural mainstream,? but not the ?religious mainstream.? [2] I think that?s helpful. In some ways, Mormon distinctives?especially theological or ritual distinctives?are better known than ever before.  The fact that the most readily repeated markers of Mormonism derive from the faith?s distinctive history and behavior?polygamy, Word of Wisdom, the Book of Mormon?speaks to Mormonism?s continued ?otherness.?  And perhaps that is where Mormons want to be.  Terryl Givens told Helen Whitney that Mormons want to ?mainstream enough? to get ?a fair hearing? for their message.  An interesting story going forward will be to watch if this resistance to full ?mainstreaming? reflects a maturing church that feels more self-confidence in standing somewhat apart. [3]   I?m excited to see what comes next!

CHJ: Thanks, JB?so are we! Not only with regard to the Mormon image over the long term, but also in the nearer term with your book!


[1] Kevin Kelly?s comments are in Benjamin Tateoka, ?LDS Church launches new advertising campaign in New York City,? (BYU) Universe, 12 July 2011, accessible at

[2] Jan Shipps, in Howard Berkes, ?Mormons Confront Negative Ideas About Their Faith? National Public Radio, 12 February 2008.

[3] This is at the heart of Armand Mauss?s The Angel and the Beehive, what he called ?the Mormon struggle with assimilation? in mid-1990s America.  His assertion was that ?religious movements are considered successful to the extent that they avoid the assimilative embrace of the surrounding society and maintain a degree of tension with it.?  This ?maintenance . . . of a separate identity,? Mauss wrote, is crucial to a religion?s survival?and to its very raison d?être.  A viable religion must have something unique to offer.   At the same time, though, if a religious group is so far removed from societal norms that it is viewed as a dangerous pariah, that group will struggle to survive if the host society sees it as so deviant and threatening that it needs to be eliminated.  As Mormons have considered both ends of this spectrum, the trick, Mauss suggested, is to find ?optimum tension.?

Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 8-9.



Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Current Events Intellectual History Politics Popular Culture Responses


  1. A second part that was well worth waiting for. Thanks CHJ and JB! I look forward to reading the book soon

    Comment by J Stuart — November 4, 2013 @ 8:47 am

  2. Thanks to you both for taking the time to craft and then answer the questions. This is a landmark book on a subject that needs landmark works (post-WW II Mormonism).

    Comment by David G. — November 4, 2013 @ 10:03 am

  3. This is wonderful. Thanks, J.B. and Crissy.

    Comment by Christopher — November 4, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

  4. This is a great interview. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — November 4, 2013 @ 7:57 pm


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