Do Mormons get fair treatment in the media? A Q&A with J.B. Haws

Print More

Haws Portrait smallHow 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.

9780199897643Given 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.



  • Pingback: 17 December 2013 | MormonVoices()

  • “There was this feeling that Mormonism was a religious threat with growth all across the US, but especially the South.”

    Regardless of whether or not Mormonism is a threat to society, Mormonism is a threat to the souls who believe their gospel. The Apostle Paul said that if anyone preached a gospel other than the one that he preached (revealed to us in the Scriptures…the Bible), that that person is cursed.

  • E B

    Whether or not Mormonism should be viewed as a threat is a matter of opinion. Anyone who investigates the LDS Church – or any other church – can pray and find out through the Holy Spirit whether or not the gospel of Jesus Christ is in it, and whether it is taught in full.

  • Macho Camacho

    Your comment presupposes a lot of things. First, that the Bible is true and accurate. I won’t challenge that presupposition, because I also hold to it. But it also presupposes that Mormonism is different than what Paul taught. The entire premise of Mormonism is that it is a restoration of the Gospel that Christ himself taught, which is what Paul also taught.

    If you want to make comments, please don’t use circular logic to advance your point (and promote your blog…yikes).

  • Douglas R

    I’m unsure any faith gets fair treatment by the press, but there has always been a large group of Americans who eagerly believe the worst about others.

    Jesse Walker wrote a book called “United States of Paranoia” which explores the culture of conspiracy theorists and quotes John Crowley: “Can’t you see, he’d said, the truth is so much more interesting: secret societies have not had power in history, but the notion that secret societies have had power in history has had power in history.” Among other topics, Walker’s book talks about perceptions of Mormons, and, if I remember correctly, implies that anti-Mormon literature provided the inspiration for the original movie, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.

    Without question, harmful cults do exist in the world. But the knee-jerk, finger-pointing accusation of “Cult!” can of itself become a cult.

    As I grew up, I carefully monitored how the media portrayed my LDS faith, and I soon gave up hope of journalists ever getting it right. I still feel basically the same way. Because of countless media distortions about Mormons, I naturally question negative portrayals of other faiths. For example, why should I believe what some self-proclaimed expert says about Jehovah’s Witnesses? Or Buddhists? Or whatever group someone deems a “cult”?

    The only way to understand what someone really believes is to get to know them personally. And even then, you need to be carefully objective. An ex-Mormon who cannot say anything good about Mormons is like a bitter divorcee who can’t say anything good about an ex-spouse, even if he or she has happily remarried.

    Sometimes critics reveal more about themselves than their subjects.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    A good survey of the earlier phase of anti-Mormon propaganda is the book The Viper on the Hearth, by Professor Terryl Givens. It should be interesting to compare the two periods, with a bridge being Kathleen Flake’s study on the Senate hearings held on the seating of Reed Smoot, who had been elected to represent Utah.

    My own conclusion from these and similar studies is that most people are intellectualy lazy and tend to follow the easiest path from a question to a conclusion, which involves prejudice that reinforces the person’s world view. Few people have the intellectual fortitude and integrity of Jana Reiss, who made the effort to really understand Mormonism.

    For most Americans, Mormons are classified alongside the Amish, or fundamentalists, or even Hassidim, or Muslims, so that conclusions can be drawn without real effort. Even the simple rule of thumb of withholding any condemnatory judgment unless one has real evidence is just too hard for most people. It is so much easier to condemn all the odd peope to hell first, and let God sort them out.

  • mb

    Soooo…..mormons don’t preach that gospel and you do? Why? Because you have a degree on your wall that says you do? It’s funny because there’s a scripture in the Bible that actually condemns people who think that they can rely upon the knowledge of men to preacg Gods word, when they should rely upon God and the Holy Spirit.
    Also, where in the Bible does it say Mormons are going to be condemned? Find me one specific verse that mentions Mormons. You can’t. Did it ever occur to you that you’re wrong? You’ve taken it upon yourself to preach condemnation about millions of people you know nothing about. That’s Gods job and you aren’t him. Stop playing God because I’d hate to be you on judgment day.

  • Pingback: Juvenile Instructor » Mormon Studies Weekly Roundup()

  • Dwight

    The Apostle Paul warned Christians of his day about adopting creeds of another gospel (See Galatians 1:6-9). The Prophets and Apostles predicted an apostasy or falling away from the truth (See II Thessalonians 2:1-3; Acts 20:28-30; Isaiah 24:1,5; Amos 8:11-12; 2 Timothy 4:3-4)

    Well, they did adopt extra-Biblical creeds not taught by Jesus or his apostles. Joseph Smith fulfils the Biblical prophecies of a falling away and subsequent restoration of Christianity to the earth (See Acts 3:19-21; Malachi 3:1; Malachi 4:5-6; Rev. 14:6-7; Matt. 24:31)

    Christianity became messed up by deletions and additions to the original in the form of creeds and so forth. For example: In the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is a non-Biblical creed, we read that “there is but one God, a most holy spirit, without body, parts or passions,” thus denying the resurrected Christ, for, as the Bible says, if Christ is not risen and we do not believe him when he tells us that he has an immortal body, we can then have no hope of a resurrection (Phil 3:21.)

    Contrary to the creed Jesus taught after his resurrection: “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and ones, as ye see me have.” (Luke 24:39)
    From this passage we know that Jesus had his physical body after the resurrection. We also know that when Christ comes again, he will still have his physical body. (Zech. 14:4; 12:10; 13:6; John 20:24-28, Acts 1:9-11; Rev 1:7; 1 Cor. 15:3-8, 12-20, 35-42; D&C 93:33).

    The Bible prophesies of an apostasy or falling away from the truth. Of course, then, Christianity became convoluted. But the Bible also prophesies of a subsequent restoration in the last days. (See Acts 3:19-21; Malachi 3:1; Malachi 4:5-6; Rev. 14:6-7; Matt. 24:31)

    That restoration has occurred. God did restore Christianity in its original form through a new prophet for the Latter-days.

  • Do Mormons get fair treatment in the media? A Q&A with J.B. Haws | Flunking Sainthood bqlcniy lace wigs