In its 9 April edition, The New York Times ran an opinion editorial by Kenneth Woodward entitled “The Presidency’s Mormon Moment.” Writing primarily about the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney, Mr. Woodward noted the “stumbling block” that Mr. Romney’s religious faith might be.
“Although with 5.6 million adherents Mormonism is the nation’s fourth-largest denomination,” Mr. Woodward wrote, “57 percent of respondents to a recent CBS poll said they know little or nothing about Mormon beliefs and practices.”
That irony — being large and still largely misunderstood — recalls an experience following Hurricane Andrew. One local official thanked the many who helped in the cleanup, including members of the Mormon Church and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Thankful for the help, the official didn’t realize those helping hands came from the same denomination.
Mr. Woodward’s column and the hurricane experience hit upon a reality in America. Polls show considerable “ignorance” about the Church of Jesus Christ, while Mormons feel the church they belong to is not the same church they often hear and read about. This unfortunate reality need not persist.
Mr. Woodward’s observations about Mormons include a certain “clannishness” and lack of close friendships with non-Mormon neighbors, due, in part, to their being so “busy.” It’s true that many Mormons are busy — they volunteer at church and try to spend time with family members. They probably don’t know all of their neighbors as well as they’d like. And they’ve heard their own Church president caution them against being “clannish” or holding any kind of “holier-than-thou” attitude.
They also know the dilemma of being “perceived as unusually secretive” about temple ceremonies. From the outside, Mormon temples can appear “secretive.” From the inside, faithful Mormons know temple worship to be sacred. Such worship is indeed uncommon — there is little in society that is so private and even less that can be considered holy. Mormons won’t discuss the details of temple worship, but they’ll certainly explain what the experience means to them and how it informs their lives.
On the other hand, they’re fully aware that anyone can visit — and in fact anyone is invited to attend — any Sunday service in the 27,475 congregations around the world.
Do Mormons “speak one way among themselves, another among outsiders,” as Mr. Woodward observes? Many probably do. Visitors to a Sunday service, for example, will almost certainly hear religious beliefs and doctrines expressed in ways unfamiliar to them. Fair enough. It's having a conversation that counts. Both sides — Mormons and non-Mormons — should be aware of the need to listen carefully and to explain and clarify the terms of their beliefs. Conversation and dialogue are welcome.
But there remain the weightier matters. Mr. Woodward thinks “Americans distrust the Mormon church.” The polls suggest he is right. On the other hand, some Mormons think 150-year-old stereotypes — like polygamy, which the Church discontinued over a century ago — still obscure who they are and the life they live. They’re right too.
Mr. Woodward squarely addresses both a stereotype and the potential distrust that could result. Some might fear the president of the Church — regarded by members as a prophet — might have too much political influence, as with earlier concerns about the pope and the Catholic Church. Mr. Woodward simply proposes to “review the church’s record.” There are many prominent Mormon office holders with divergent political views, including Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. Mr. Woodward correctly notes “there is no evidence that church authorities have tried to influence any of these public servants.”
He seems to be suggesting, at least in this case, that fears and concerns will work out with experience, accurate information and patience.
History will have to determine if this will be the “Mormon moment in presidential politics.” But whatever the political outcome, there is the opportunity for distrust and stereotypes to yield to understanding.