Romney Lost. Is the Mormon Moment Over? And What Would That Mean, Anyway?

By November 7, 2012

Mitt Romney hoped to be the Mormon JFK. Instead, he will now go down in the history books as the Mormons? Al Smith ? the Roman Catholic who was nominated for the presidency by the Democratic Party in 1928, but lost to Calvin Coolidge in part because of anti-Catholic prejudice.

But I?m not interested in how long it will be before we elect our first Mormon president. I?m more interested in the so-called ?Mormon Moment,? and what the end of Mitt Romney?s political career means for the place of Mormons in American culture. With Romney (and his ubiquitous political ads) out of the spotlight, will the Latter-day Saints now fade from the national stage? Will Americans forget about their odd Mormon neighbors and move on to lambasting and lampooning someone else?

The most instructive comparison here is not Al Smith, but rather Mitt Romney?s own father. As I discussed in a previous post, George Romney?s presidential bid in the mid-1960s came at the end of another American Mormon moment. From approximately the end of World War II until the mid-1960s, Mormons were in many quarters embraced as part of America?s Judeo-Christian community. The confluence of Mormon accommodation to American culture and American embrace of this self-identified Christian group in solidarity against godless Soviet communism brought Mormons and their non-Mormon fellow citizens together, and during this period the Saints were celebrated for their pioneering heritage, their family values, and their contemporary patriotism. Eisenhower appointed Mormons as his Treasurer and Secretary of Agriculture?that Secretary of Agriculture, then-Apostle Ezra Taft Benson, even led the Cabinet in prayer to open their first meeting.

George Romney rode this wave of good feeling into the Governor?s mansion in Michigan in 1962, and was quickly mentioned as a possible contender for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination. He didn?t run in ?64, but by 1965 it was clear that he would seek his party?s nomination for the 1968 election?and goodwill toward Mormons evaporated. In December 1965, the New York Times ran a three-part exposé on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the first installment of which appeared on the front page. The series argued that the Church was a corporate, top-down organization in which believers unquestioningly obeyed the leadership?s dictates in social, economic, and political matters as well as in their spiritual lives. Journalist Wallace Turner was particularly disturbed by what he regarded as the Church?s racist policy on African Americans in the priesthood. But most of all, he wanted readers to understand that George Romney was a Mormon, and because ? as Turner saw it ? Mormons always obeyed the leadership of their Church, if Romney were elected then the Church could effectively govern the nation [1].

George Romney?s run for the presidency didn?t create Mormonism?s public image problem in the mid-1960s, nor did his religion cost him the nomination. In fact, he remained prominent in national politics for more than two decades after abandoning the presidential race, most notably as Richard Nixon?s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. But Romney?s run came at the very end of the period of Mormonism and American culture?s greatest accommodation to one another. But as American culture liberalized and began to embrace its ever-growing diversity in the 1960s, the Mormons didn?t change ? in fact, as Armand Mauss has shown, they retrenched and reasserted their differences from other Americans culturally and religiously [2] ? and their white, clean-cut, patriotic, traditional family-oriented image quickly came to seem anachronistic and, even further, opposed to equal rights for groups like women and African Americans [3].

But what really doomed the Mormons in the popular imagination in the late 20th century was the deep divide that developed between the right and the left in American culture, both religiously and politically (and sometimes both at the same time). As Americans fought their culture wars, Mormonism became a football between the two ends of the spectrum: conservatives were willing to make common cause with the Saints politically, but as the religious right became more and more deeply intertwined with conservative politics, Mormons suffered from the widespread evangelical conviction that their religion was a cult. At the other end of the political and social spectrum, more liberal Americans who otherwise celebrated diversity condemned the Saints for their political conservatism. The Mormon image was thus punted back and forth as a convenient straw man for the ills that Americans of all stripes saw in the wider culture. The Saints were routinely depicted as violent, sexually repressed and oppressive, and not only religiously wrong but also fanatical [4]. But perhaps most importantly, they were routinely depicted. After the end of the mid-century Mormon moment, Mormons didn?t disappear from the culture ? their image just shifted in an extremely negative direction.

So what will happen now, if our own Mormon moment has truly ended? I don?t hope, as I know some people do, for Mormons to fade out of the national spotlight entirely ? because that hasn?t really ever happened in the Saints? nearly 200-year history. I would like to hope that we?ve learned something about Mitt Romney?s faith simply by virtue of the interest raised by his long presence on the national scene. I hope for the majority of depictions going forward to be of Mormons as real, multi-dimensional people, and not simply as mindless zealots or lovable buffoons. But I don?t think that?s likely. First and foremost, Americans aren’t particularly good at depicting religions ? particularly non-Protestant religions ? in fair and/or nuanced ways. Thus the last Mormon moment was succeeded by decades of simplistic, ill-informed, and often demeaning or outright negative images of the Saints ? many of which were produced in just the last decade. These representations demonstrate that, in spite of 30 years? worth of prominent, positive images at mid-century, Americans learned very little about their Mormon neighbors? religion. But that lack of knowledge was no barrier to frequent depictions of Latter-day Saints as non-Mormon Americans imagined them to be.




[1] Wallace Turner, ?Mormons Gain Despite Tensions: Liberals Are Stirred by Church Curb on Negro Members; Right-Wing Activity and Polygamy Also Cause Concern,? December 27, 1965; Turner, ?Mormon Stand on Negroes Poses Problem for Romney If He Decides to Run for President: Church Prejudice Would Be an Issue,? December 28, 1965; Turner, ?Mormon Tithes Support Worldwide Proselyting, and Membership Keeps Growing: Financial Health of Church Strong,? December 29, 1965.

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

[3] In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, both The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune focused significant attention on the Church?s exclusion of black men from the priesthood, and on the Saints? vocal and organized opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

[4] For just a few examples in each category, see:

Violence: William Wise?s 1976 book Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Legend and a Monumental Crime; the substantial media coverage of forger Mark Hoffman?s infamous 1985 murders; Charles Bronson?s 1988 film Messenger of Death; or Jon Krakauer’s 2003 bestseller Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith.

Sexual oppression and repression: Tony Kushner?s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1992 and 1993); Deborah Laake?s bestselling memoir Secret Ceremonies: A Mormon Woman?s Intimate Diary of Marriage and Beyond (1994).

Wrong religion: The most prominent example is the film The Godmakers (1982). See also The Mormon Puzzle, produced by the Southern Baptist Convention in preparation for their 1998 annual meeting in Salt Lake City; or, even more recently, comedian Bill Maher?s documentary Religulous (2008).

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


  1. For one, I don’t think it’s fair to call Romney Mormonism’s Al Smith. He may have not been elected, but I doubt his Mormonism will factor into narratives of his loss. As it stands, it looks like Republican disdain for or ignoring of Latinos might take that cake. Maybe Romney will be shown as the upper class white man who wouldn’t have compassion on Hispanic poverty, but placing blame on his Mormon faith seems unlikely.

    Second, the Church isn’t reacting the same way today as it did in the post-1960s era. If anything, there is a push for greater engagement and integration of various Mormon identities. I find it dubious that with such outreach we’ll fall back into such negativity.

    Comment by Michael H. — November 7, 2012 @ 8:15 pm

  2. I agree with you, Michael H. That the Church’s greater openness is an important factor here, but it’s one that it’s hard to quantify. Also, unfortunately, even in the middle of the 20th century — a time of great accommodation for the Church as well as for individual Mormons — negative representations of the Saints still abounded. These were primarily in books (films and news media tended to be more positive), but two Pulitzer Prize winners in a row in the 1950s had negative images of the Mormons central to their plots. One of those, the contemporary political thriller *Advise and Consent*, was soon after made in a movie starring Peter Fonda, and the other, *The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters*, became a TV show — thus vastly expanding their audiences.

    As for how Mormonism will fit into the narrative of Romney’s loss, I think for better or worse it’s there. The media has consistently highlighted Mitt Romney’s “evangelical problem” throughout the race, and I think that will influence how his loss gets explained. How much of that is based on the numbers (and how would we quantify how many conservative Protestants stayed home or voted for a third-party candidate because of Romney’s Mormonism?) and how much of it is based on extending the existing narrative about the marginalization of Mormonism in American culture is up for debate.

    Comment by Cristine — November 8, 2012 @ 9:49 am

  3. I would argue that there was very little acceptance of Mormonism on the part of Evangelicals. It never came up because the goal was to defeat Obama, not to embrace Mormonism. Now that the possibility of republicans putting their candidate in the WH, the need to hush-up on the Mormon issue can go back to normalcy (i.e., “haters can hate”). For many people this may have been an introduction to Mormonism but the Mormon moment seemed to have happened in the Mormon community but not much everywhere else, especially near the end of the race.

    Comment by Bryan Kerr — November 8, 2012 @ 10:29 am

  4. Thanks, Cristine. I think that you’re correct that, at least among religious historians, Romney will be seen as a Al Smith-type of forerunner. And I continue to find your comparisons between George and Mitt to be illuminating. I think that a biography of George, placed in the kind of context that you provide, is a project just waiting to be done.

    Comment by David G. — November 8, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

  5. Excellent, Crissy. Thanks for this. Also, I agree with David re: the George Romney bio–do you have any interest in pursuing that project? 🙂

    Comment by Christopher — November 8, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

  6. Fantastic work, Cristine. I’ve been curious about where the Mormon image will go from here, and you helped provide the foundation for several possibilities. Thanks.

    Comment by Ben P — November 8, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

  7. Bryan, @3, Actually, according to the Pew Research report on the election, white evangelical support for Romney was higher at 79% than for John McCain in 2008, and equaled GW Bush’s support in 2004.

    There are still issues there, but the implication is that while they all still think we are going to hell, we are not so horrible as to stop them from engaging us on social issues of common concern, without too much reservation.

    Comment by kevinf — November 8, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

  8. Thanks, guys. I do find the original Mormon moment fascinating, and a bio of George Romney would definitely be a great way to delve into it… but one project at a time. Let me get through the popular Mormon image since 1890, and then maybe I can focus on George and the mid-twentieth century.

    @Bryan, however the Evangelical vote broke in the election, we’ll never know how many people *didn’t* vote for Romney because of his religion — and that includes not only conservatives but liberals and, most importantly, the all-important independent vote as well. Mormons are stereotyped as lock-step conservatives, and Romney played to that during the Republican primaries. How many independents couldn’t reconcile his move back to the center in the last few weeks with not only his primary performance but also their perceptions of his religion?

    Comment by Cristine — November 10, 2012 @ 9:53 am


Recent Comments

wvs on The historiography of adoptive: “Bravo, J.”

J. Stapley on The historiography of adoptive: “Thanks, guys.”

Gary Bergera on The historiography of adoptive: “Really interesting information, J. Thanks.”

John Hajicek on The historiography of adoptive: “THIS is how all Mormon history should be written. Outside of Utah, historians write the history of the story, instead of writing a…”

Jeff T on Digital News: The Woman's: “Thanks Liz and JJohnson! I know that there are efforts to capture data from individual articles, although that might be a while down the pipeline.…”

JJohnson on Digital News: The Woman's: “Such a great source. And the scans are beautiful. Any attempt being made to identify all the authors? I'm particularly interested in A.P. today. …”