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The Mormon Moment, In Context

The Book of Mormon illlustration

As holder of the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, Patrick Mason oversees the only graduate program devoted to Mormon studies in the world. This not only puts him at the vanguard of a burgeoning academic field, but has made him one of the most prominent public educators of a burgeoning religion.

For the past several years, interest in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been steadily building—currently culminating in the near-insatiable appetite for information on Mitt Romney, a former Mormon bishop, after he secured the Republican nomination for president of the United States. With the spotlight on Romney, his long marginalized and often persecuted faith may be cementing its position as a significant world religion.

Concurrent with that is an expanding body of scholarship on Mormonism. This July, the New York Times featured a story on the growing number of Mormon studies scholars; first on their list was Mason. His prominence can also be measured in volume: whenever journalists write about Romney’s faith, they invariably call upon Mason for comment. This year he has already been featured in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, to name only a few. He has also appeared on podcasts, radio, and television.

What nearly all of his comments in the media have in common is that they are in response to questions about a particular incident or issue-of-the-day. Here, we conduct a more open-ended interview with Mason on Romney and the Mormon moment, the nascent Mormon-Evangelical political partnership, Mormon studies at CGU, and more, including the influence of Malcolm X on Mason as a scholar and as a person.

The Flame: What initially inspired you to become an academic in Mormon studies?

Mason: Even before I went to college, I decided I wanted to be a professor. Even though I didn’t know what a professor was. I know that’s weird. I wanted to be a history professor. My undergraduate degree is in history, my PhD is in American history. For me the more circuitous route is how I got into Mormon studies.

I never went to grad school intending to do Mormon studies. I went just intending to do American history and American religion. In some ways the Mormon part came through the back door. I was always interested—I took one class at BYU as an undergraduate, kind of an academic approach to Mormonism. I was always interested in it, but I never thought it would define my career. And I still think of it as only one part of what I do, which is a broader profile of American religion.

I always wanted to have an academic career. The particular trajectory I wouldn’t have guessed 10 or 15 years ago, but I wouldn’t have guessed—well, originally I wanted to become president. Then that didn’t work. [Laughs.] Then I wanted to be a supreme court justice, because they don’t have term limits.

The Flame: There’s a lot of talk about the Mormon moment—which is where your two fields intersect, Mormon studies and history. Do you agree that this is a unique time for Mormonism?

Mason: Absolutely. Interest in Mormonism has waxed and waned over the past 200 years. We could point to other Mormon moments. There’s been a lot of attention on Mormonism in the past, but almost all of it was negative. The dynamic has been one where the LDS Church is defensive and the rest of the nation—whether it’s religious leaders, the media, politicians—are taking an aggressive stance. In those situations there’s not much meeting in the middle, or even productive conversation in the middle. That’s the difference about this particular moment. There is a lot of constructive and productive conversation to be had. There’s public education to be done, and that’s one of the reasons I am more than happy to work with the media.

The public doesn’t know much about religion in general. We know this. Polls show religious literacy in America is really low. People don’t know that much about their own faith, let alone other faiths. I have always felt that that’s one of the roles of the academic, when possible, to participate in public education. So absolutely there is a Mormon moment.

Most of it revolves around Mitt Romney. To some degree the Book of Mormon musical. And I think it started with the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. But when you get down to it, it’s about Mitt Romney.

The Flame: Do you see these events—the Olympics, Book of Mormon musical, Mitt Romney—as a part of a continuum?

Mason: Yes, and it’s happened over the past decade. There’s been an intensity around Mitt Romney’s first run in 2008, Prop 8 and the [LDS] Church’s active engagement in politics. And again with Mitt Romney’s second run and the Book of Mormon musical. So now Mormonism is not just a religion, it’s a political phenomenon and a cultural phenomenon. It’s on Broadway. It’s the number one show on Broadway. It won all the Tony Awards. So it really is unique, this confluence of events, probably tracing back to the Olympics. The first time the world looked at Mormonism, not in a posture of derision or defensiveness on behalf of the Church. But kind of, “Here we are. This is what we do. We’re part of the conversation.”

The Flame: You forgot Big Love.

Mason: That’s true. Big Love. Sister Wives. It’s just part of popular culture. To some degree, Jimmer Fredette, NCAA [basketball] player of the year. These sports stars, Steve Young. BYU won the [football] national championship in 1984. So every once in a while, but it just seems like it’s all happening in the last decade, especially the last five years.

The Flame: How integral to the Mormon moment is it that Mitt Romney wins the presidential election?

Mason: I think the level of awareness has been raised, and that will be permanent. No doubt, if Romney wins or loses that’s going to make a difference. But even if he wins, I can’t imagine there will be this kind of sustained attention—I mean, how many stories can you write? I think they’ve covered every angle, but they do keep on coming up with more. So it won’t be this intense, but if Romney becomes president, it will continue in a way that it won’t if he loses. But the median will have raised.

The Flame: How would you compare the Catholic moment and John Kennedy’s election to president with the current Mormon moment? Are they analogous, or are the differences big enough that they aren’t comparable?

Mason: I think they are similar in a lot of ways. It’s interesting because essentially Romney is making the same argument that Kennedy made. Kennedy got up in September 1960 and said I’m not the Catholic candidate for president, I’m the Democratic candidate for president who happens to be Catholic, and my faith is a private issue. Essentially Romney has followed that line. Romney doesn’t want to talk about religion on the campaign trail.

At the same time, John F. Kennedy became the hope and dream for millions of American Catholics who said this is our chance for legitimacy. Finally we will be accepted, after 200 years in America we will be accepted. And they were. That was a watershed moment for the American Catholic community.

I think the same dynamic is true in Mormonism right now. I know a lot of lifelong Democratic Mormons—there are about 12 of them [laughs]—but a lot of them are going to vote for Romney because they say, “He’s our guy. This is our moment, when we gain acceptance, finally.”

A lot of Mormons crave that kind of acceptance, becoming mainstream. That’s certainly the mode the Church is in now. That would be the ultimate shattering of the stained-glass ceiling in American society. If you can be president you can be anything.

The Flame: Why do you think George Romney [Mitt Romney’s father, a credible candidate for president in 1968] didn’t seem to hasten on the Mormon moment like Mitt Romney seems to have?

Mason: That’s a great question. I don’t think we’ve fully answered that. I can only hypothesize. I think it’s because George Romney ran for president at the end of an era, basically from World War II to 1968 or so. Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “This is a religious country. Religion is the foundation of this country. I just don’t care what religion it is.”

That really captured the ethos of America in the 1950s and 1960s. The idea was, yeah, we’re a faith-based country, Protestant, Catholic, Jew—and Mormons, okay, they’re different, but whatever. They go to church, they’re good Americans. Civil religion really was the religion of America. Mormons fit; they go to church, they’re anti-communist, they’re good people, good enough for us. With George Romney there weren’t that many questions about him. He was clearly a church-going, God-fearing guy. That’s all it took in mid-twentieth-century America. Who knows, if he actually got the nomination, if that intense scrutiny would have come. But I don’t think the nation had the appetite for that. Especially running after Kennedy, and in a way running on the fumes of that.

What I think changed was the mobilization of Evangelicals in the 1970s. Evangelicals became a political force in the late 1970s. They started their own kind of anti-cult programming, because there were all these “cults” that arose and new religious movements that arose in the 1960s that they were reacting against, and they lumped Mormonism into that. So this historic antagonism between Evangelicals and Mormonism gets politicized as Evangelicals gain more political power, especially in the Republican Party. So now, it’s important for Republican candidates to have Evangelical bona fides, in a way that it wasn’t in the 1960s. And Evangelicals with their anti-cult movements and programming, there’s a sharper edge to their anti-Mormonism than maybe there was in the 1950s and 1960s when they were dealing with other issues. That’s how I would read it.

Also then, on the other side, there’s the rise of secularism, secular humanism, secular liberalism, so then Mormonism gets assaulted from both sides. Secular liberalism wasn’t that powerful of a cultural or political force yet, at the time that George Romney was running. And neither were Evangelicals. And now they are, one coming from the left, the other from the right, and Mormonism kind of stands in between.

The Flame: Is part of the Mormon Moment a lessening of the traditional antagonism between Evangelicals and Mormons?

Mason: The answer is yes and no at the same time. In November [2011], while it was still primary season you had this guy, Robert Jeffress down in Dallas, a prominent Southern Baptist, come out and say Mormonism is a cult. He was very explicit about it: Romney is a member of a cult, he’s not Christian. But then as soon as Romney gets the nomination, Robert Jeffress endorses him [laughs].

So, there are some ways that Mormon-Evangelical relations have warmed or thawed in recent years. There have been some prominent Mormon-Evangelical dialogues—Richard Mouw at Fuller [Theological] Seminary has really been a leader on this.

And Mormons and Evangelicals have partnered on political issues like Prop 8 [Proposition 8 was a ballet proposition in California that amended the state constitution to only recognize marriages between a man and women.] And actually the LDS Church’s involvement in Prop 8 earned it a lot of credibility with other conservative religious groups, because they saw the [LDS] Church kind of put itself out on a line. Of course, it completely devastated relationships with liberal, secular—let alone the gay—communities, so that was a real watershed. But it earned a kind of respect from some of those other conservative groups.

So I think it’s a both/and; there is a pretty significant hostility between the two groups [Mormons and Evangelicals], especially at the grass-roots level. But they also get along and work together on political issues. They all find themselves in the religious right. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and I think that’s the case here.

The Flame: How do liberal Mormon politicians, like Mo Udall [former congressman and presidential candidate in 1976] or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, fit into the Mormon moment?

Mason: The Udall family was never as pronounced about their Mormonism. The various members varied in their adherence and devotion to the Church. So you don’t hear as much about them. I think it’s because they didn’t make it a big part of their public identity. In that way, it’s the same with Harry Reid. But he is very devout. He goes to church every Sunday, teaches Sunday school, and all that. But you rarely hear about him as a Mormon, though it is an important part of his identity. He went to BYU a couple years ago and said, I’m a Democratic not in spite of the fact that I’m a Mormon, but because I’m a Mormon. And that wasn’t popular with a lot of the students there.

And I think that’s part of the narrative of the past 30 or 40 years. The Republican Party expects its candidates to talk about their faith. In a Democratic primary you don’t want to talk about your faith. The Democratic Party has a religion problem, and has had a religion problem for the last 30 to 40 years, if not longer. It’s not a badge of honor. It’s not something you want to promote or talk about, because it is problematic with a major part of your base. Whereas in the Republican Party you have to talk about it, and you have to have a certain amount of credibility.

The Flame: Is that why so many Mormons are Republican?

Mason: It’s a lot of the same dynamics of why most Evangelicals are conservative and Republican. In the 1960s and 1970s the parties went in different directions. The Democratic Party’s platform endorsed abortion, gay rights, feminism, these cultural touchstone issues, prayer in school, things like that. Whereas the Republican Party, largely because of the Evangelical influence in the 1970s, really embraced conservative religion.

It’s not that either party reached out to Mormons. First of all, electorally they are not significant enough for either party to care that much about. Actually, a lot of Mormons voted Democratic for most of the twentieth century. A lot of grassroots Mormons were FDR Democrats and believed in the New Deal. It was really after that shift beginning in the 1960s, this new Democratic Party that allied itself more with liberal social issues, including civil rights and feminism and all these things, that Mormons looked around and said “We don’t feel comfortable here.” So there was a mass exodus to the Republican Party in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Flame: When you talk to the media, are there common questions you get?

Mason: The main thing is, everything is filtered through Mitt Romney. The underlying assumption—sometimes they ask it explicitly, sometimes it’s there in the background: How does Mormonism explain Mitt Romney? What can we understand about Mitt Romney because of his Mormonism?

I’m not sure that is the right question to ask or always a good question to ask. It is a legitimate question, but I don’t think it’s always the most important question. But that is what is behind the media interest, what’s been driving it. And that goes in a lot of different directions. I just wrote this thing for the Christian Century on Mormon social ethics and they said, “Lead with Mitt Romney.”

And we just had a reporter from the LA Times, the religion guy, came to the congregation that I attend. He came to the whole service, just to get a sense of it. But I’m sure the story will be, “What’s it like when Mitt Romney goes to church?” That’s always in the background.

The Flame: Do you think understanding Mormonism does provide particular insight into Mitt Romney? Also, Do you think learning about Mormonism through the Mitt Romney lens is a legitimate way to learn about the faith?

Mason: The answer to both is yes and no. With the first one, look, Mormonism is an essential part of who Mitt Romney is. He’s not just a casual churchgoer, a social churchgoer, like a Ronald Reagan. He’s more like a Jimmy Carter, in that religion is really at the heart of who he is, how he sees the world, and so forth.

But you can’t understand Mitt Romney only through Mormonism. I don’t think you can understand him separate from his corporate experience. I think he sees the world as much through the eyes of Wall Street as he does through Joseph Smith. And I actually think those visions bump up against each other, and I don’t think he has fully reconciled those two things. We’re all split personalities in a way. So I think if you only looked through the Mormon lens, he’s certainly a product of that, but if you pretend that Mormonism will explain everything about Mitt Romney, I don’t think you’re going to get there.

I’m happy for Romney to be the filter [for understanding Mormonism]. Romney does tell us a lot about contemporary Mormonism. I don’t follow his every move on the campaign trail, but I think his most comfortable speech that he gave was the commencement speech at Liberty University, Jerry Falwell’s university. Now that to me is really interesting, because the place where he was most comfortable is with a bunch of fundamentalist Protestants.

That tells us a lot. For me, that tells me something about contemporary Mormonism, that that’s the language that contemporary Mormons speak and feel comfortable with. We feel more comfortable with conservative people who theologically hate us than with a kind of motley, mixed, pluralistic, secular public square. So we can speak that language, but we have a hard time figuring out—this is that Prop 8 thing: how do you apply religious principles in a secular framework?

So at the same time, you miss a lot about Mormonism if you only go through Mitt Romney. Because the tradition is bigger than him. It’s ideologically bigger, it’s philosophically bigger, theologically bigger. He is clearly a devout person who knows his religion well, and has been a leader in the Church. But he’s not a student of Mormon history or theology. He’s versed in it, but he’s not a student of it. I think even he would be surprised at the diversity within the tradition that he doesn’t capture.

The Flame: If someone is interested in Mormonism but only gets their information about the faith through articles on Mitt Romney, what books would you recommend that provide a more accurate, fuller picture?

Mason: I think the best, easiest entrée, are two books: one is by Richard Bushman, who had this position before I did. Oxford has this series, Very Short Introductions, and he wrote Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction. In 100 pages, small little pages, he does a remarkable job of giving you a real sense of Mormon history, theology, culture, by reading that book.

The other one is a new book by Matthew Bowman, called The Mormon People, just out this year. It goes over Mormon history, Mormon culture; very accessible, but learned and smart. If someone was interested, those would be the two I would put them on.

The Flame: In the Claremont Studies Newsletter you wrote about a class you taught on Mormonism and mentioned how happy you were that the majority of students were non-LDS. Why is that important?

Mason: Two reasons: it’s important that while we’re training students in religion here at CGU—they are going to be going out and having careers in religion and teaching religion at other universities—for them to know something about Mormonism. Now Mormonism may not get the same media scrutiny it’s getting now, but the Church is only going to grow, demographically, and really establish itself as an important part of the American and global landscape. So it’s important for students to understand it. I don’t think every student has to take a class on Mormonism, but it’s going to be a part of every American religion class you are going to teach. So it’s important to know something about it from reading sources, both secondary and primary literature, rather than just guessing.

And I think it’s good for Mormon studies—really good—to have non-LDS people involved in it. I think some of the best work in Mormon studies has been done by the non-LDS people working in it. Now this is always the dynamic we talk about in religious studies in general, the insider/outsider dynamic: who has the better perspective, someone inside a tradition or outside a tradition? And there are cases to be made both ways, but actually you need both. The outsider perspective is invaluable. And we see it not just in the scholarship, but in the classroom. The class I taught last spring was 10 times better because we had a diverse group of people who were the whole range: from orthodox, conservative LDS to secular, feminist theology, queer theology, and everything in between. It just made for a far better classroom dynamic. It’s exactly what we want in the classroom. It makes for a far more productive discourse for everyone, rather than just when everybody agrees with each other.

The Flame: You had written that the Mormon Studies Program at CGU is unique in all the world. How so?

Mason: Well, it’s the only graduate-level program in Mormon studies in the world. So just structurally, it’s the only one. The University of Virginia looks like it’s going to get one in the next year or two, so we will have the relinquish the exclusive claim, but we’re always going to be the first.

We’re the only ones doing it at graduate level, and this is the raison d’etre of CGU—and graduate school in general. There are just certain things you can do at the graduate level you can’t do anywhere else; in the graduate classroom and with graduate study. That you can’t do at the undergraduate level, that you can’t do in the media. A certain level of sophistication and depth and nuance.

I’m really convinced that the kinds of conversations that we had in that class, I’m not sure where else we could have had them. And the fact that we are here in a secular university where everything is on the table, there aren’t really the kind of political or cultural considerations that exist if we were located in Utah, so all of those factors make this a pretty ideal place to be doing it.

The Flame: How have those conversations—or your time here in general—shaped your views or your research focus?

Mason: For one thing, coming here I am doing to a lot more relating to women and gender than I ever did before, because of our program in Women’s Studies in Religion. And so many of our students here are interested in gender. So that’s why I taught the course on gender and Mormonism: I looked around after my first semester and I thought all these students are interested in gender. That’s an innovative way to look at Mormonism and advance the field. So I said “Hey, let’s do it.” I’m not a gender scholar, I would never claim to be a gender studies scholar. I’m not formally trained in women’s history. But that’s the other fun thing about being here, a kind of entrepreneurial spirit that you can bring to the classroom and to your research. You can go in new directions. I learned a ton from those interactions that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

The Flame: You had previously written that the most influential book in your life is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Did that influence you more as an individual or as a scholar?

Mason: Both! In a lot of ways it set me on a kind of intellectual and even spiritual trajectory that I am on and have been on ever since. I was 15 or 16 years old and it was when the Spike Lee movie [Malcolm X] came out with Denzel Washington. For whatever reason my mom took me to see it. My mom does not like Malcolm X. She did not take anyone else from my family, not my dad, not my brothers. It was just me and her.

I didn’t even know who this guy was. It was one of those strange serendipitous moments in life. I was just blown away. I immediately went home and read the book [The Autobiography of Malcolm X]. And it opened up this whole other world. Now I grew up in suburban Utah. I think there was one black student in my high school. Overwhelmingly Mormon. Overwhelmingly conservative. A very safe and in many ways parochial upbringing. And this just shattered my idea about America. About justice and human relationships. I was really compelled—and still am compelled—by a lot of Malcolm X’s diagnosis of some of the deep structural injustices in our country and in human relationships.

In a lot of ways that put me on this trajectory of trying to figure out why and how. It’s one of the reasons I went into peace studies—I have master’s degree in peace studies. A lot of my work is on violence and peace building. It really gave me a structural lens on human society and human relationships that I’m not sure I would have gotten otherwise.

Contemporary Mormonism is really a conservative theology in the sense that the emphasis is on the individual: individual action, individual accountability and responsibility. But there’s not much emphasis or attention paid to structures of injustice or structures of violence. I had to get that somewhere else, and that’s what Malcolm gave me.

The Flame: The popular images of Malcolm X and Mormonism seem to have very little in common. As someone well versed in both, do you see similarities that aren’t self-evident to the casual observer?

Mason: There are some. I think the differences are greater than the similarities, no doubt. One of the reasons I like Malcolm, personally and spiritually, is because he was a spiritual pilgrim. His life is a remarkable one of assimilating truth and searching for truth. A real serious commitment to truth in the service of justice. I see a lot of that, it’s one of the things I like about Mormonism—at its best it is a kind of openness to truth wherever you find it. A kind of spiritual journey. And actually, I find a lot of his critiques of injustice also present in Mormon theology and in Mormon history, though it’s not the dominant theme you get by going to a Mormon congregation these days.

This sense that there are things seriously wrong with the way we’ve structured our society: the way we treat one another, our worship of markets, gender relations, all kinds of things, a kind of worship of radical individualism and so forth. I see a lot of the same kind of diagnosis of some of the sickness of society, though I think they are going in somewhat different directions.

If I thought hard enough I could probably write an essay: “Malcolm X the Mormon.” But he wouldn’t have liked Mormonism—I don’t know how much he knew about Mormons. Of course, the Church still banned blacks from holding the priesthood [until 1978]. He may have known that and that was enough.

The Flame: What are you working on now?

Mason: I’m working on two big projects now. One is a book on a Mormon theology and ethic of peace. There just hasn’t been that much work on it. I’m trying to think what is coming from a distinct Mormon theology, Mormon scripture, the Mormon prophetic tradition; what does it have to say about issues of war and peace. I just finished editing a book that’s coming out soon, based on a conference we had here a couple years ago. But this next book will be a systematic look at Mormonism and peace.

The second book is a biography of Ezra Taft Benson. He was a secretary of agriculture under Dwight Eisenhower; at the same time he was an apostle for the LDS Church. It’s almost like having a Roman Catholic archbishop in the Cabinet, which is unheard of. Somehow it was okay to have a Mormon apostle; I’m still trying to figure that out.

He went on to become an architect of hard-right conservatism. He was clear supporter of the John Birch Society in the 1960s; a very vocal and public supporter of the John Birch Society. Very conservative. Very controversial everywhere he went. Later became president of the LDS Church in the 1980s and 1990s. Really a significant figure, not just for Mormonism, but for American politics, too.

The Flame: You’re currently fusing your interests in Mormonism and American history, but when you think about where you want your career to take you, do you see yourself shifting back to your initial interest in history?

Mason: One of the reasons I am interested in Mormonism, intellectually, is because I think it is a great laboratory for studying the issues that I care about. Studying about issues of religious freedom, tolerance, the relationship between religion and the state, religion and politics. So for me it’s never just about Mormonism. It’s Mormonism as a case study for these broader themes in American culture and history. That’s why I feel like I am able to do both and wear both hats relatively comfortably.

I do think sometimes, okay, maybe after these next two projects, I’ll do something on American religion in general, with maybe a chapter on Mormons. I’m really interested in issues of religion and the state. So somewhere down the line, do I do a broader project on that? Or on secularization or something like that? But I’ve got enough to do for the next few years.

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