By Trevor Antley.
“The Mormon moment is now.” That was the headline in the Washington Post’s religion & faith section yesterday. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, colloquially called “Mormons” and “the Mormon church,” know it’s true. We no longer do a double-take when we hear someone say “Mormon” on TV. We shrug off the fact that a major Broadway play makes millions mocking our beliefs. That the Senate Majority Leader is a member of our faith hardly seems like a big deal.
For many of us the attention doesn’t seem as shocking as it did in 2007 when the national spotlight seemed to first zero in on our minority religion. It was then that BYU-grad and former stake president Mitt Romney began his initial bid to become the leader of the free world. The media’s seeming obsession with our religion caught many of us off guard. For the most part, though, the attention died down by itself when Romney abandoned his doomed campaign in February 2008.
Since then there have been other pockets of media attention on Mormonism, but none very lasting. 2008 did also feature Proposition 8, a California bill that would ban same-sex marriage in the state, and many analysts credit the bill’s passing at least partly to major Mormon support. The Church’s hard stance against gay marriage meant it became the target of many very angry activists. LDS temples and chapels around the country were picketed. Tom Hanks famously called Mormons “un-American.” Back then, in our zeal to combat the evils of homosexuality, few could have predicted that a BYU forum for gay students would be met with success at the Mormon university only four years later.
But despite interesting bumps along the road, the overarching public interest in Mormonism has always surrounded Mitt Romney, and despite mostly-negative reactions due to Proposition 8, media interest in Mormonism made a more permanent return in 2010 when it became clear that Mitt Romney was preparing for a second and more serious White House bid. The attention has been building since then, with seemingly minor stories about Mormonism, Mormons, and Church-sponsored BYU gaining surprising national interest. The public’s eye on Mormonism has slowly been growing larger and larger, and some of those supporting President Obama in the general election have pledged to make Romney’s faith a public issue and will attempt to use it to defeat the Republicans.
With Mitt Romney now the certain GOP nominee to face Barack Obama in the general election, it seems that for Latter-day Saints the crescendo is almost over. We are now on the precipice. The remainder of 2012 will prove to be a purifying fire for Mormonism, not only for how the world sees our religion but also for how we as Latter-day Saints will see it as well.
Blacks and the Priesthood
This is the issue that many Democrats have pledged to attack Romney on, and it is an issue that makes Latter-day Saints very, very uncomfortable. We have struggled to forget our past with regards to blacks, and now discussing the priesthood ban and any pre-1978 Church statements on race seems almost taboo in Mormon culture. Recently a BYU religion professor was harshly censured by the university and by Church leaders and members for promulgating ideas reminiscent of past LDS positions on blacks and the priesthood.
The Church has struggled to explain the origins of a priesthood ban that many have called racist. While Brigham Young and other Latter-day Saint leaders believed that blacks were kept from receiving the priesthood because of a cursed lineage, in 1978 the Church officially repudiated this teaching, with Apostle Bruce R. McConkie stating in the Church’s General Conference that members should “forget everything” that Brigham Young and even Elder McConkie himself had taught regarding the issue, as they had been teaching “with a limited understanding.”
The modern church has never made clear whether it still teaches that priesthood ban was inspired or not. Recently after the BYU professor found himself in a scandal over the issue, mentioned above, the Church issued a statement that read: “For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent. It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago.”
Many Latter-day Saints were surprised that the Church no longer had an official position on this, and many that I spoke to thought that the issue was best left quiet and not talked about. This strategy of sticking our heads in the sand may not work in 2012 as this confusing portion of our history will soon be turned into political ammunition.
Like blacks and the priesthood, there are numerous other historical and doctrinal issues that Latter-day Saints will be forced to recognize in 2012 that may have otherwise escaped their notice. As a minor example, just a few days ago Lawrence O’Donnell, a liberal MSNBC talk show host, attacked Mitt Romney by attacking Mormonism, saying, “Mormonism was created by a guy in upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it.”
Many immediately lambasted O’Donnell for the inaccurate and offensive statement, and O’Donnell was eventually forced to apologize. But few Mormons probably took the time to wonder where O’Donnell had gotten such a ridiculous story. Of course his telling is completely off the mark, but O’Donnell’s comments seem to be his misunderstanding of the fact that LDS founder and prophet Joseph Smith was accused of having an extra-marital affair with a woman named Fanny Alger in the mid-1830s who lived in the Smith home for a time. There is strong evidence that the two did have a relationship, and many Mormons believe that Alger was Smith’s first plural wife (Joseph Smith would eventually take on around twenty-seven additional wives).
These are the sort of issues that are going to be publicized over the coming months. There are many more like it.
Some Things are Changing
Mormonism has always been a top-down religion, not a bottom up. That said, regarding homosexuality, there have not been any recent Church policy changes. But at least among Mormonism’s younger generation, there at least seems to be a shift in sentiment.
Recently at BYU, a department-sanctioned forum for homosexual Mormon students was held, and it was met with such success by the student body that overflow crowds had to be turned away. Only a few days later a popular video was posted on YouTube as part of the “It Gets Better” campaign featuring homosexual BYU students. There have been no publicly negative reactions by the Church or university, and reactions across the campus have seemed almost exclusively positive.
I am not suggesting that the Church will ever sanction same-sex marriage–only this past week Mormons have been zealously opposing same-sex marriage legislation in Maryland. However, the way we view homosexuals certainly seems to be changing, and our beliefs and perceptions have certainly changed in the past. In the 1960s, let alone the 1860s, few Latter-day Saints thought there was a possibility that blacks would receive the priesthood or enter the temple before Christ’s Second Coming. Similarly in the 1870s there were no Latter-day Saints who thought that something like Wilford Woodruff’s 1890 revelation to end the practice of plural marriage was possible. And there have been less dramatic changes too–scientific theories such as evolution, once debated among the Brethren and then demonized by later General Authorities are now commonly accepted by educated Mormons and taught in BYU classes.
Frankly it seems certain that the overt amount of attention — and much of it negative attention — that our religion will receive over the coming months will be a trial of faith for some. But the opportunities it brings should be a welcome blessing as we are given the chance to hone our beliefs and testimonies and we receive ample opportunity to discuss our religion with interested audiences. 2012 will be an exciting year for the Saints.