How is Mormonism portrayed in the media, and how has that changed over the last few decades? Do Mormons get fair treatment in the press?
In The Mormon Image in the American Mind, an interesting new book from Oxford University Press, BYU church history professor JB Haws looks at media portrayals of Mormons from 1967 to 2012, covering everything from the racial restrictions of the 1960s and 1970s to the rise of anti-Mormon feeling in the 1980s (thank you, God Makers) and the recent presidential hopes of Mitt Romney. Yesterday J.B. made time to talk to me about the issues raised in the book. –JKR
You frame your book “from Romney to Romney,” starting with George Romney’s 1968 presidential campaign and ending with his son Mitt’s 2012 campaign. Why?
The framing idea came from my dissertation adviser, Bob Goldberg. Originally I had been thinking of starting [the book] from 1978 with the revelation on the priesthood, but the idea of having two Romneys, both running for the presidency, offered a chance for some comparisons in putting them side by side.
What changed about the tone of the country from 1967, when 17% of people said they would not vote for a Mormon, to 2007, when 29% of Republicans polled said they would not vote for a Mormon?
A couple things happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Three events really stand out among others. First, the LDS Church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment seemed to resurrect some fears about Mormon political ambitions and Mormon political power. Mormons didn’t seem as benign as they might have in the 1960s. Then, importance of the rise of the religious right as a political movement cannot be overstated. There was this feeling that Mormonism was a religious threat with growth all across the US, but especially the South. This made some people in the Christian right make a more concerted effort to distinguish themselves from Mormons. Finally, the Mark Hofmann episode seemed to bring to the fore all the fears about Mormon secrecy, conspiracy, and authoritarianism. It seemed that all of those images about Mormonism came back with a vengeance.
When you say “came back,” do you mean those fears were present earlier?
Yes. Those themes had been present before; it was the nineteenth century all over again. In the 1930s to the 1960s, many of those fears had faded into the background and Mormonism had come to be seen as all-American, one denomination among many. The 1980s brought those institutional fears into the foreground.
The other thing that was really pronounced, and another thing that changed, is that individual Mormons like the Marriotts and the Osmonds were probably more well-known and respected than they’d ever been, but that didn’t necessarily translate into respect for the LDS Church as an institution.
Given your chapter on the accusations in the 1960s that Mormons were racists, what is your reaction to the new “Gospel Topics” statement on the history of Mormonism, race, and the priesthood ban?
I see that statement – and other things like the historical introduction to the Official Declaration #2 that came out in the new edition of the LDS Scriptures – as really important. I think it reflects the Church’s direction towards greater openness about its history and collaboration with its top-notch scholars. The spirit of the Joseph Smith Papers is to be very forthright and forthcoming with the sources, to take an honest look at the Church’s history. There’s a wider recognition of historical context and situations.
You note that after winning some public support in the 1970s for strong family values, Mormonism in the 1980s became the target for anti-Mormon campaigns like The God Makers. Why did so many Americans pay attention to The God Makers, especially when Mormons and evangelicals began converging politically in the 1980s?
That’s one of the biggest conundrums. On the surface it seems counterintuitive. But I think that actually might be the issue. In the search to retain America as a Christian nation, this feeling arose that Mormonism was a counterfeit of Christianity, and if it wasn’t stopped, then America would lose its special status as a Christian nation. Mormonism was so close [to evangelicalism] that it made the deception difficult to unmask.
Also, new technologies were available in the 1980s, like the VCR, that made The God Makers more successful.
Outside the evangelical subculture, I think that other Americans began to pay attention in the 80s because of Mark Hofmann, the Lafferty brothers, and this rash of fundamentalist violence that had ties with Mormonism. To outsiders these all seemed to be part and parcel of the larger picture of Mormonism.
Speaking of Hofmann, one chapter where you issue a strong corrective is the one about the Hofmann forgeries in the 1980s, presenting the LDS Church’s frustration that it was still accused of secrecy and cover-up after the Church said it had made all of the Hofmann forgeries public.
In terms of what the police asked for, yes, the Church relinquished all of the documents that it knew of. Just two or three years ago, they discovered another document that was probably a Hofmann forgery. But at the time they turned over everything to the police. Earlier, before the bombings, there were a couple of documents that the Church did not make available immediately to researchers because Church historians were trying to authenticate them, and there were others held in private owners’ hands. But the Church turned over all the documents it knew of to the police.
I think it seems almost our human nature to be intrigued by conspiracy theories. It seems to fit an American mindset to distrust institutions that seem too powerful. The Hofmann story seemed to fit that narrative.
After the Mormon Moment, roughly the same percentage of Americans said they knew little or nothing about Mormonism as had said they knew little or nothing before 2012. Why?
I’m a little skeptical of those polls. I’m thinking in particular of the Pew poll that came out last December, and that was the headline. But what they did find was that generally speaking, there was a rise in favorability toward, and a sense of common religious ground with, [Mormons], even among evangelicals, who had a 4 percent increase, and maybe a 14 percent increase among mainline Christians. I think it may be that in terms of learning something, maybe the respondents felt like they hadn’t learned much, but in terms of feeling, this vague sense of Mormonism itself or of Mormons as people, I think that poll did show some movement in a direction that Mormons would see as positive. I think the results kind of belie the headline.
Is that rise in favorability helped by the media? Do you think the media coverage is more positive, negative, or about the same now that we’re done with the Mormon Moment?
I think that some of the media coverage late in the 2012 campaign showed that more positive direction. With the Republican Convention, and NBC’s Rock Center, there started to be some attention to new aspects of Mormonism like the humanitarian work of the Church and the lay ministry/welfare side of local bishops.
With race, I think there have been some really important trends to depict Mormonism as more racially diverse, like Katie Couric’s profile of basketball player Jabari Parker. Now he’s a freshman at Duke and one of the top college basketball players. On his website, he gives two things that define him, and one of them is the LDS Church.
One last thing is something Matt Bowman said really well. He told NPR last November that the biggest change is the undermining of the great myth of Mormonism, which is that it’s a monolith. I think that’s true. There’s new attention to Mormon diversity in terms of race, political persuasion, occupation and background.