Tuesday night, fresh from hearing of Rick Santorum’s withdrawal from the presidential campaign, I went out for frozen yoghurt with a bunch of friends from church. I asked my friends, almost all of whom are Republican, how they felt about Romney being the Republican candidate. Conversation ended instantly as my friends slumped wearily. One woman spoke for everyone when she said: “I just want it to be over.”
In Mormon circles, news of Romney’s success is a decidedly mixed bag. Like every religious minority group, we are thrilled to be represented on such a large stage, and a largely Republican Mormon population is proud of the man and eager to help him on his quest for the White House. But all of us are fearful of the election cycle and what this attention will bring to our door.
We have good reason to be wary. Over our history, both press attention and government intervention has not been kind. From political cartoons that depicted Mormons as cultish rapists, to Arthur Conan Doyle’s description of a murderous prophet, the worst rumours have been exacerbated and publicised. Politicians have been so disgusted by polygamy that in the process of outlawing it, they have stripped Utah women of the right to vote and froze the church’s assets. In 1857, political manoeuvring led President James Buchanan to cancel mail service to Utah and advance troops, in an effort to replace the governor with one of his choosing. Twenty years before that, a Missouri governor issued an extermination order against Mormons that remained in effect until 1976. For our young church, these events still loom large.
While we no longer need to fear the threat of losing our property or livelihoods, today we do still worry about a press that doesn’t understand our traditions. Viewing what is tender and sacred to us as worthy of exposé, writers have approached me or my colleagues for pictures of our religious garments or for detailed descriptions of our temple ceremonies. These requests are not intended to be disrespectful, but it is difficult to explain how we feel about these things to people in our modern western tell-all culture. We appeal to traditions of Islam or Native American cultures to try to explain why we don’t talk about these things we hold dear, but in modern western society the only reason people don’t talk is if there’s something to hide. That gap worries us as we decide which is worse – being seen as suspicious and weird, or holding up our most tender ceremonies for public mockery.
Still, while we fear the criticism, many members couldn’t be prouder of such a visible success from one of our own, and hope this signals a shift in how Mormons are viewed in mainstream society. Our relationship to the rest of American culture has always been complicated. We have been taught to be comfortable in setting ourselves apart. Being “in the world but not of the world.” Our dietary restrictions, standards of dress, and teachings about romantic relationships make us noticeably different to our associates. But at the same time, we want to be successful within our culture. We want our missionary efforts to be resonant, to have a positive and productive reputation, and to be an example of our faith. We have wanted to fit in while standing out. With a Mormon now having a major party nomination for president, our hope is that this will lead to us becoming better incorporated in the larger American society.
Along with our doctrine, we also have reason to be nervous about controversial aspects of our history. A history of racism, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment – the practice of the average member is to put these troubling episodes aside and concentrate on today. I think it’s our trademark optimism that leads us to want to dwell on what we love about the gospel, and not on what needs fixing. But those of us who worry about what needs fixing are hopeful this attention will speed the process of change along.
Black members were initially allowed full fellowship in the faith, but sometime in the early years of the church, for motivations that are unclear, this changed and blacks were not allowed temple rites or, for black men, the priesthood, until 1978. Once the ban was lifted there was no official explanation offered, just a forward goal of overcoming racism. Without that explanation, unofficial racist teachings that attempted to justify the ban continued, popping up again just this February in the Washington Post. Outrage over those comments finally forced the church to officially repudiate them. As a feminist and gay rights advocate, my hope is that similar attention will force the church to address traditions and teachings that are damaging and have gone on for far too long.
This election cycle will be tough on us Mormons. To my fellow Latter Day Saints I would quote one of our most cherished pioneer hymns: “Gird up your loins, fresh courage take.” As for me, I’ll be driving my minivan to church with a bumper sticker on the back. “I’m a Mormon, and I’m voting for Obama.”
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Photo: Mitt Romney via Flickr/davelawrence8