From Broad­way to Belt­way, Mor­mons in the spot­light

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY VA­LERIE RICHARD­SON

It’s not ex­actly hip to be Mor­mon, but you wouldn’t call them square, ei­ther. At least not right now. The fa­mously un­caf­feinated, highly con­ser­va­tive Utah-based church is sud­denly the toast of the po­lit­i­cal and en­ter­tain­ment worlds. Two of the top con­tenders for the 2012 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, Mitt Rom­ney and Jon Hunts­man Jr., be­long to the church, with Mr. Rom­ney widely viewed as the early GOP fron­trun­ner.

“The Book of Mor­mon,” the ir­rev­er­ent mu­si­cal about Mor­mon mis­sion­ar­ies in Uganda, won nine Tony Awards last month and re­mains the hottest ticket on Broad­way. The last sea­son of the HBO se­ries “Big Love” was must-see TV. Then there’s Stephe­nie Meyer, the Mor­mon au­thor of the hugely pop­u­lar Twi­light books, and Glenn Beck, a Mor­mon con­vert whose ra­dio show and books con­tinue to draw a ded­i­cated fol­low­ing de­spite his high-pro­file de­par­ture from Fox News.

These days, Mor­mons are im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore, which may be why even the main­stream me­dia is pay­ing at­ten­tion. Newsweek, not ex­actly a friend of con­ser­va­tives, ran a June cover story on the church with the en­thu­si­as­tic head­line, “Mor­mons Rock!” The New York Times on July 5 ran re­sponses by 10 po­lit­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal and re­li­gious ex­perts to the ques­tion, “Are Repub­li­cans now ready for a Mor­mon pres­i­dent?”

Just about ev­ery­one seems to agree that this is a “Mor­mon mo­ment.”

Jan Shipps, the pre­em­i­nent non-Mor­mon ex­pert on the church, ar­gues that the Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints, the of­fi­cial name of the re­li­gion founded 164 years ago, al­ready has had two such mo­ments since the turn of the cen­tury: The 2002 Win­ter Olympics in Salt Lake City and Mr. Rom­ney’s high-pro­file run for the GOP pres­i­den­tial nod in 2008.

“So this would be the third ‘Mor­mon mo­ment’ of the 21st cen­tury,” said Mrs. Shipps, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­tory and re­li­gion at In­di­ana Univer­si­tyPur­due Univer­sity In­di­anapo­lis and au­thor of sev­eral books on the LDS church. “And it’s still a re­ally young cen­tury.”

The re­sult, she said, has been the rais­ing of the church’s pro­file and an im­prove­ment of its im­age among non-Mor­mons. A few more such mo­ments, and Mor­mons could find them­selves fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of the Jews as mem­bers of an achieve­ment-ori­ented mi­nor­ity faith whose clout as opin­ion and cul­tural lead­ers far out­strips their num­bers in the pop­u­la­tion at large.

“They’re be­com­ing stronger, not nec­es­sar­ily in their num­bers but in their vis­i­bil­ity,” Mrs. Shipps said.

Mor­mons al­ready have sur­passed Jews in num­bers. Mem­bers of the LDS church con­sti­tute 1.4 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, while Jews make up 1.2 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the 2008 Amer­i­can Re­li­gious Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Sur­vey.

The LDS church places its mem­ber­ship at 6 mil­lion, while the ARIS sur­vey says it’s closer to 3.2 mil­lion. Ei­ther way, that’s not enough to push a would-be pres­i­den­tial can­di­date to vic­tory, and vot­ers have shown them­selves wary of Mor­mon can­di­dates in a way that no longer holds true for other faiths and mi­nori­ties.

A Gallup Poll re­leased June 20 found that 22 per­cent of Amer­i­cans would not sup­port a Mor­mon can­di­date for pres­i­dent in 2012, a num­ber that has re­mained “largely un­changed since 1967,” ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey. But the com­pa­ra­ble per­cent­ages of U.S. vot­ers who would never vote for a Catholic, Jewish, Bap­tist or black can­di­date were all less than 10 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the Gallup sur­vey.

Richard Land, pres­i­dent of the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion’s Ethics and Re­li­gious Lib­erty Com­mis­sion, re­sponded to the New York Times query by say­ing evan­gel­i­cals, who do not

Quin Mon­son, as­so­ciate di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for the Study of Elec­tions and Democ­racy at Brigham Young Univer­sity in Provo, Utah, said the ef­fect of hav­ing two cred­i­ble LDS can­di­dates in the GOP field may be to draw more Mor­mons into the po­lit­i­cal process.

“I think this is a big deal, and it’s an es­pe­cially big deal be­cause they’re both highly qual­i­fied, at­trac­tive, proven candi-

Jan Shipps, the pre­em­i­nent non-Mor­mon ex­pert on the church, ar­gues that the Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints, the of­fi­cial name of the re­li­gion founded 164 years ago, al­ready has had two such mo­ments since the turn of the cen­tury: The 2002 Win­ter Olympics in Salt Lake City and Mitt Rom­ney’s high­pro­file run for the GOP pres­i­den­tial nod in 2008. “So this would be the third ‘Mor­mon mo­ment’ of the 21st cen­tury,” said Mrs. Shipps, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­tory and re­li­gion at In­di­ana Univer­sity-Pur­due Univer­sity In­di­anapo­lis and au­thor of sev­eral books on the LDS church. “And it’s still a re­ally young cen­tury.”

ac­cept Mor­mons as au­then­tic Chris­tians, likely would sup­port a Mor­mon over the Demo­cratic al­ter­na­tive.

“Pres­i­dent Obama and his poli­cies are so deeply un­pop­u­lar with a ma­jor­ity of these vot­ers that more of them would be likely to ‘hold their nose’ and vote for a Mor­mon, if he were in­deed the GOP nom­i­nee, against the in­cum­bent pres­i­dent,” Mr. Land said. dates with fundrais­ing abil­ity,” Mr. Mon­son said. “What you see around here is a lot of ex­cite­ment among stu­dents in par­tic­u­lar. And they’re al­ready at work with both cam­paigns.”

That the LDS church has de­liv­ered two well-re­garded can­di­dates may say more about the can­di­dates them­selves than the church’s im­age within the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial main­stream, he said.

“It’s not so much that the church is more or less ac­cepted, it’s that you have two well-qual­i­fied can­di­dates who hap­pen to be LDS,” Mr. Mon­son said.

The church reis­sued a state­ment on po­lit­i­cal neu­tral­ity in re­sponse to the can­di­da­cies, say­ing that the church’s “mis­sion is to preach the gospel of Je­sus Christ, not to elect politi­cians.” At the same time, it is­sued a new state­ment June 16 not­ing that its full-time lead­ers “should not per­son­ally par­tic­i­pate in po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns.”

The church showed its me­di­asavvy by re­fus­ing to be baited into crit­i­ciz­ing “The Book of Mor­mon,” whose re­lent­lessly ob­scene book both sat­i­rizes and sym­pa­thizes with its lead­ing Mor­mon char­ac­ters. While the show has plenty to of­fend the av­er­age Mor­mon, a church state­ment said only that the real book “will change peo­ple’s lives for­ever by bring­ing them closer to Christ.”

The church then launched a pub­lic­ity cam­paign in Times Square show­ing posters of peo­ple of all ages and eth­nic­i­ties an­nounc­ing, “I’m a Mor­mon.”

Or­di­nary LDS mem­bers also ap­pear to take the show and its hit sta­tus in stride.

Blog­ger Emily L., post­ing on the web­site mor­mon­per­spec­tives.com, ac­knowl­edged she felt “un­com­fort­able” in two of the show’s dozen or more scenes, but added, “I saw it, and I lived to tell about it.”

“All in all, it’s vul­gar, but fairly harm­less to­wards the Church di­rectly,” she wrote. “It has about as much im­pact as an episode of ‘South Park’ ”, the an­i­mated show that first made the au­thors of “The Book Of Mor­mon” fa­mous.

The church “is tak­ing ad­van­tage of this to make peo­ple think bet­ter of them,” Mrs. Shipps said. “They are not dumb about things like this.”

One not-so-great Mor­mon mo­ment came af­ter the pas­sage of Cal­i­for­nia’s Propo­si­tion 8 in Novem­ber 2008. Ho­mo­sex­u­al­rights ad­vo­cates blamed the mea­sure’s suc­cess largely on the in­volve­ment of Mor­mons, who con­trib­uted heav­ily to and cam­paigned for the mea­sure ban­ning same-sex mar­riage.

Mor­mons were tar­geted for protests out­side tem­ples and took a beat­ing in the press. At the same time, their stance in fa­vor of tra­di­tional mar­riage had the ef­fect of im­prov­ing their rep­u­ta­tion with evan­gel­i­cals.

What’s be­yond ar­gu­ment is that Mor­mons showed them­selves to be forces on the na­tional scene. Whether they can string such mo­ments into real cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal mo­men­tum re­mains to be seen.

“This does sug­gest that [Mor­monism] has ar­rived as a main­stream topic. But you never know, these things ebb and flow,” Mr. Mon­son said. “It will be in­ter­est­ing to see what’s hap­pen­ing in 10 years, when there’s no pres­i­den­tial race or show on Broad­way.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

LDS in the Limelight: Andrew Ran­nells (cen­ter) per­forms in “The Book of Mor­mon” (top) at the Eu­gene O’Neill Theatre in New York. The show won nine Tony Awards in June, in­clud­ing Best Mu­si­cal, and re­mains the hottest ticket on Broad­way. Be­tween the stage and pol­i­tics this year, Mor­mons are “be­com­ing stronger, not nec­es­sar­ily in their num­bers but in their vis­i­bil­ity,” said Jan Shipps, the pre­em­i­nent non-Mor­mon ex­pert on the church.

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