And rather than shy away from Mr. Romney’s faith, as some campaign aides have argued he should, they have decided to embrace it. On the night Mr. Romney will address the convention, a member of the Mormon Church will deliver the invocation. On Sunday, this new approach was apparent as Mr. Romney invited reporters to join him at church services.
The blogger behind Ask Mormon Girl offers her own personal stories and insights about being raised in the LDS Church — its beautiful elements and some its internal tensions — and how this presidential campaign season is a “white-knuckle moment” for many Mormons. She’s smart, candid, incisive, and, yes, she might even make you cry.
I’m waiting for the story that transcends the flat ethnicity paradigm and gets the deeper and more persistent question of religion and moral bearings:
How does the most religiously devout candidate in recent memory reconcile a life of religious commitment with a values-neutral approach to work, livelihood, and the marketplace?
Why does religion play an outsized role in the politics of gay marriage and contraception but apparently has no say when it comes to big-ticket items like national spending and economic policy?
That profound disconnect certainly did not originate with Romney, but it may in fact be the key to understanding how he would lead and govern.
Joanna Brooks, from her Religion Dispatches’s piece, “Romney: “A Life Balanced Between Fear and Greed”?”
Is she describing the disconnect between the spaces in which we live and the way we’ve publicly lived religion since the 60’s?
The Wrong Side of White: Black Mormons in a Presidential Year
by W. Paul Reeve, guest contributor
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism) has consistently found itself on the wrong side of white. In a recent New York Times article, “Black Mormons and the Politics of Identity,” an embedded video begins with a Times reporter commenting “it may come as a surprise to people that there are black Mormons in America.” It is a telling statement that captures the nexus of the LDS Church’s racial past and its efforts to realize a more diverse racial future.
Although few in number, blacks have been a part of the LDS movement from its founding to the present. The first documented African American to join the LDS Church was a former slave known only in the historical record as “Black Pete.” He became a member at Kirtland, Ohio, in 1830, the year of the Church’s founding. More significantly, at least two black men, Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis, were ordained to the Mormon priesthood in the Church’s early years. Abel participated in Mormon temple rituals at Kirtland and was baptized as proxy for a deceased friend and two relatives at Nauvoo, Illinois.
In this regard, it is most accurate to speak of integrated priesthood and temples in Mormonism’s early years, a progressive stance in a charged national racial context. At the same time that the nation moved toward legal segregation in the wake of Reconstruction’s demise, the open space for full black participation in Mormonism gave way in fits and starts. By the first decade of the twentieth century race-based priesthood and temple bans were firmly in place.
It is impossible to understand that trajectory without first understanding the ways in which white Mormons themselves were racialized. The prevailing American fear of interracial mixing played a significant role in that process, especially as outsiders projected their own alarm over race mixing onto Mormons. At Kirtland, outsiders suggested that Black Pete received revelations to marry white women. In Missouri settlers argued that Mormons were inviting free black converts to that state, not only to incite a slave rebellion but to steal white women.
After the Mormons openly announced the practice of polygamy in 1852, the charge of interracial mixing took on a life of its own. One Army doctor filed a report with the United States Senate in which he claimed polygamy was giving rise to a degenerate “race.” Political cartoons depicted interracial polygamous families, sometimes with black, Asian, and Native American wives mixed in among the white. In a variety of ways outsiders constructed Mormons as racially suspect, facilitators of interracial mixing and therefore of racial contamination. As one news account put it, “the days of the white race are numbered in this country.” At the crux of this fearful deterioration was the “American of the future,” “a black Mormon.”
Against such a charged national racial backdrop, Mormons responded with an effort to claim whiteness for themselves. In 1852, Brigham Young drew upon the curses of Cain, Ham, and Canaan, derived from long standing Judeo-Christian Biblical exegeses, to bar black men from the priesthood. Leaders later expanded the policy to include temple worship for black men and women, except for proxy baptisms for their deceased ancestors. In 1908, leaders cemented those policies in place when historical forgetfulness trumped verifiable evidence to misremember that the bans had always been there, divine mandates that only God could rescind.
With that reconstructed memory as the new guiding principle, it took Spencer W. Kimball, the faith’s mild and unassuming prophet, to overturn the ban. In 1978, Kimball announced a revelation which returned Mormonism to its universalistic roots and reintegrated its priesthood and temples.
Since that time, Mormon growth in Africa has been rapid, while the pace among blacks at home has been much slower. The bans and the doctrines that supported them sometimes plague missionary efforts among blacks and make it difficult to retain converts once they join. LDS leaders have yet to repudiate past teachings which shored up the bans, a lingering problem that makes it possible for various iterations of those teachings to live on in the hearts and minds of some members.
In the meantime, black Mormons, like their coreligionists of all stripes, must decide how they will vote in this historic election year. It is a contest that is poised to pit the nation’s first president of African ancestry against the first Mormon of any color to capture a major party nomination. Mitt Romney’s ascendency to the top of the GOP ticket might signal to some Mormons that their historically pariah faith has finally arrived. In that regard, Romney may very well mark Mormonism’s full racial passage to whiteness. It is an awkwardly-timed if not tepid acceptance that coincides with Mormon attempts to claim a more diverse racial identity for themselves — witness the “I Am a Mormon” national media campaign featuring a heterogeneous group of Latter-day Saints as the faces of modern Mormonism.
Unlike his Mormon ancestors, no one today questions Mitt Romney’s whiteness. One culture critic went so far as to call him “the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory.” It is a designation that Mormons craved a century ago, but one that comes as a liability today. The historical arc of Mormonism’s racial dance is richly ironic. In the nineteenth century they were denigrated as not white enough, by the twenty-first century, as too white.
W. Paul Reeve is Associate Professor of History at the University of Utah. He is writing a book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, under contract at Oxford University Press.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Mormons are excoriated in popular culture (see: “The Simpsons”) for the way their church was created by someone who was kind of a con man. And the translation of the Book of Mormon was accomplished with a hat. And the Golden Tablets have been lost. Hmmm. The stone tablets of the Ten Commandments were misplaced, too. And a burning bush talking? Really? It comes down to faith, as it should. Not some sort of ignorant bigotry.
Many of the academics consider themselves liberal, socially responsible, and broad-minded individuals, the repository of the best in America. They’re proud of themselves for voting for Barack Obama (a bit too smug maybe?). They would splutter and bluster and be generally outraged to be considered prejudiced. None would consider saying anything similar about African-Americans, Muslims, Jews, Native Americans … well, you get the idea. But anti-Mormonism is part of the same continuum that contains discrimination against any group. Why, then, is it allowable publicly express bias against Mormons?
—Thomas C. Terry, from his insightful commentary on anti-Mormon bigotry within academia for Inside Higher Ed
Photo of LDS Temple in Rexburg, Idaho during a a lightning story by Doug Garding via Flickr’s Creative Commons license.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Unorthodox Spectrum of Mormonism Explained
by Krista Tippett, host
I’ve had a sense of déjà vu as the discussion about Mormonism has heated up as of late, with exactly the same dynamic occurring in the last presidential election season. But the discussion this time is more serious.
It’s not just the fact that two Mormons — Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman — are viable presidential candidates. It’s a Broadway musical. It’s more than one successful TV drama. We’re in, we’re coming to say, a “Mormon moment.” Joanna Brooks, giving just one of the many helpful pieces of perspective in this conversation, compares the rise of Mormons in politics and culture to the rise of the Mormon-owned Marriott Hotel chain. A highly disciplined, highly effective frontier culture grows up and migrates back out into centers of power. It’s a classic American story. But there’s also some kind of religious and cultural coming of age here, for Mormons and the rest of us.
I couldn’t have found a better person than Joanna Brooks to shed some distinctively informative, candid, and meaningful light on it all. She’s a literature scholar and a journalist. Her Ask Mormon Girl blog and Twitter feed is a remarkably reflective, compassionate community of questioning with Mormons of many stripes. And Ask Mormon Girl, as she notes on her website, is housed on the “legendary Feminist Mormon Housewives blog.” That is just one of many things that does not meet the traditional American eye on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — but which we engage through the voice and life of Joanna Brooks.
She grew up, as she tells it for starters, at the southern tip of the “Book of Mormon Belt” — Orange County, California, that is, which I’d associated more vividly with evangelical Christianity. Her father was “bishop” of their congregation several times growing up — a volunteer position that Mitt Romney has also held in his communities across his lifetime. Her mother is a “professional Mormon,” as she affectionately puts it — with, among other things, a serious avocation for genealogy. Joanna Brooks uses words like “rich,” “imaginative”, and “robust” to describe this faith that formed her and that she continues to love.
She has also struggled mightily, suffered disappointment and heartbreak, with this tradition she loves. She became an intellectual and a feminist at Brigham Young University, and then watched the university and the Church for a time condemn and disown the very Mormon mentors who’d inspired her. She was vociferously opposed to the proactive role the LDS Church took in California’s Proposition 8 referendum. But she is a probing force inside the Church’s wrestling with pain and confusion over this issue. Her blog is a model of compassionate presence, both to LGBT Mormons and to parents struggling to reconcile their religious beliefs and their love for their children. She honors the human confusion here that is not exclusive to Mormons and the added complexity that their theology of the family and eternity gives to subjects of marriage and sexuality.
Most of this conversation, though, is not about hot-button issues or presidential politics. It is an informative, energetic, and often moving journey into life on the other side of the American perception that Mormons are weird at best, a cult at worst. Joanna Brooks does not defend her tradition in any simplistic way, but she does make it three-dimensional and far harder to parody. Consider, for example, as she helps us do, the ambivalence and pain that Mormon married couples feel at their church’s legacy of polygamy. Hear her explanation of her sense of the “strangeness” of accusations she’s heard since she was a child, that she — a follower of Jesus Christ, a serious thinker about notions like atonement and grace — is not Christian. On a lighter note, but with just as much illumination for the listener, she is candid and corrective about a lingering obsession out there with ritual Mormon undergarments.
The most classic American story in this Mormon moment, perhaps, is how Joanna Brooks and other faith-filled and “unorthodox” Mormons are claiming their place in the unfolding story of this young frontier tradition. It is evolving from the inside in ways more meaningful, perhaps, than its outer rise to prominence in politics. Maybe in hindsight, we’ll see this Mormon moment as an occasion for this increasingly influential American phenomenon, composed after all of human beings, to become more articulate about itself and more comprehensible to the rest of us in its complexity.
Joanna Brooks: a Twitterscript
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Joanna Brooks describes herself as an unorthodox Mormon who continues to practice her faith from inside the tradition. She’s a literature professor, journalist at Religion Dispatches, and blogger at Ask Mormon Girl. And Politico named her as one of “50 politicos to watch” as many Americans experience this so-called “Mormon moment” of national politics.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 75-minute conversation and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets and starting Thursday, October 20th, look for the produced show via our podcast or on your local public radio station:
- “My ancestors, my father’s mother was an Okie who went to pick cotton in Arizona, where they found the church. ” -Joanna Brooks 1:04 PM Oct 6th
- “Mormonism was my whole world, my whole imagination, (it) profoundly shaped what my goals should be as a human being.” -@askmormongirl 1:05 PM Oct 6th
- “Our bibles are fatter! We’re taught to memorize, study and underline, pursuit of knowledge…an important part of Mormon culture.”-J.Brooks 1:12 PM Oct 6th
- “It’s important to understand that the roots of Mormonism are firmly embedded in American Protestantism.” -Joanna Brooks @askmormongirl 1:13 PM Oct 6th
- “We (Mormons) were an exceptionally innovative strand of a desire to revive and restore Christianity.” -@askmormongirl Joanna Brooks 1:16 PM Oct 6th
- “Mormons view the family as the model for our eternities.” -@askmormongirl Joanna Brooks 1:25 PM Oct 6th
- “As we gain experience here on Earth the goal is to learn enough to become peers with God.” -Joanna Brooks 1:26 PM Oct 6th
- “We are each responsible for receiving inspiration to guide our lives.” -Joanna Brooks @askmormongirl 1:31 PM Oct 6th
- “Not all of us are correlated Mormons, and experience this tradition the same way.” -Joanna Brooks @askmormongirl 1:36 PM Oct 6th
- “The church hasn’t excommunicated people since the early 90s…(but) it was chilling.” -Joanna Brooks @askmormongirl 1:37 PM Oct 6th
- “There are so many people hungry to claim a place they can feel good about in this rich, powerful religious tradition.” -@askmormongirl 1:39 PM Oct 6th
- “There are many of us [non-Orthodox Mormons] who run the tapes of our excommunications in our heads.” ~Joanna Brooks (@askmormongirl) 1:43 PM Oct 6th
- “The experience of reexamining the foundations of your faith can be nurturing.” -Joanna Brooks @askmormongirl 1:44 PM Oct 6th
- “Mormonism is capable of sustaining nuance.” -Joanna Brooks 1:44 PM Oct 6th
- “Marriage has a very specific theology in Mormonism. My choice to marry outside the faith was devastating to my parents.” @askmormongirl 1:47 PM Oct 6th
- “Every parenting decision has the weight of God-hood on it.” -Joanna Brooks @askmormongirl 1:48 PM Oct 6th
- “Write anything about Mormonism for the public and at least 30 commentators are going to say underwear, underwear underwear!”~@askmormongirl 1:57 PM Oct 6th
- “How many jokes will they make about Mormon underwear on late night television?”~Joanna Brooks @askmormongirl on 2012 Presidential coverage 2:00 PM Oct 6th
- “My people were scraping by in Southern Idaho - theirs were at the center.” @askmormongirl on Romney and Huntsman’s elite Mormon roots. 2:04 PM Oct 6th
- “There’s a lot of flavors of Judaism. Mormonism - allegedly you’re either in or your out.” ~Joanna Brooks (@askmormongirl) 2:08 PM Oct 6th
- “Obedience and conscience are issues that every thoughtful Mormon has to deal with.” ~Joanna Brooks (@askmormongirl) 2:09 PM Oct 6th
- “No one ever asks to have a writer in their family.” ~Joanna Brooks (@askmormongirl) 2:10 PM Oct 6th
- “Mormons love to cry…Mormons are really waterworks.” ~Joanna Brooks (@askmormongirl) 2:16 PM Oct 6th
- An absolute pleasure, Joanna! RT @askmormongirl thanks for having me, krista. Thanks for making real space for the humanity of Mormonism. 2:33 PM Oct 6th
Proposition 8 encapsulates so many elements that intrigued me: a story of love, of struggle, loss, and redemption. It just so happens that the main antagonist to those seeking equal rights in California was the Mormon church. And, well, I grew up Mormon myself. I served a Mormon mission to Venezuela and my entire immediate family are Mormons. So, not only was I going up against very powerful political powers, but I was literally critiquing the very culture that I grew up in. So it was a unique experience for me. On one hand, I offered a ‘insiders’ knowledge into the workings of the church’s political dealings, and on the other, it was a cathartic examination of my own past. The church itself was very dismissive of us and refused an interview. We tried for months to offer them a chance to tell their side of the story. They told us, ‘We just want to ignore this and hope it all dies down.’
—Steven Greenstreet, from his interview with ReadysetDC
With all the discussion swirling about the filmmaker’s controversially titled Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street, it’s intriguing to learn that he’s also the director and producer of 8: The Mormon Proposition, a very good documentary that was selected for last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Cotton Mather called them ‘the hidden ones.’ They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history; against Antinomians and witches, these pious matrons have had little chance at all.
—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, from her paper “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668–1735” in the 1976 spring edition of American Quarterly
Did you know that the ubiquitous slogan contained within the quotation above doesn’t end with a period but a semicolon? That it comes from a Mormon feminist and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian?
Rather than a rally cry for bold behavior, Thatcher Ulrich was lauding the underappreciated and shining a light on the historically invisible. As part of her research into Puritan funeral services, she was pointing to the value of an academically “neglected” group of quiet, dutiful Puritans who did not get as much attention as the so-called witches of that era.
Thatcher Ulrich says it’s her religious upbringing that drives her to work among the stories of everyday experience:
“Coming from a minority religious culture that emphasizes the value of the ordinary person and the everyday life and doesn’t celebrate being rich and famous has a lot to do with my orientation historically. Mormon women have had a very colorful and controversial history and that is a lot of what has interested me.”
Joanna Brooks, a scholar, journalist, and Ask Mormon Girl blogger, is another one of those smart, strong female voices. Look for our interview with her this Thursday. It’s a good one!
Photo by Hillary Stein/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Mormons Spread the Good Word with SEO Strategy
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Not every religious organization has an SEO (Search Engine Optimization) strategy, but the online success of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may make them a model for public relations efforts online.
The Washington Post reports that of any religious group, LDS.org is the most-visited website. Since 2007, according to SEO consultant Justin Briggs who wrote “Breaking Down the Mormon SEO Strategy,” the LDS website has been targeting religious search terms such as “church,” “scripture,” and “Jesus Christ” but also has focused on terms such as “friend” and “young women” and “chastity” — all with great success. In fact, LDS.org ranks right behind MTV.com in the total number of external links, with more than three-and-a-half million. That’s impressive to many industry experts, and it also may be one of the better ways to fulfill the Church’s mission of outreach to non-LDS members.
(photo: More Good Foundation/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)