The good news for Mitt Romney, according to polling data released by the Pew Research Center last week, is that Mormonism will not hurt his bid for the presidency. Only 8 percent of Republicans surveyed indicate that they will not support Romney because he is a Mormon. Even evangelical Christians who express reservations about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints pledge to support Romney over President Obama by a margin of nine to one.
But for millions of Americans Mormons not named Mitt Romney, the news from the Pew survey is less encouraging. Half of the voters surveyed report knowing little or nothing about Mormonism. Two-thirds perceive Mormons as having beliefs "very different" than their own. Only 18 percent reported positive associations with Mormonism. These numbers, unchanged since the last Pew survey in 2007, suggest that many Americans harbor a persistent sense of uncertainty about Mormonism -- an uncertainty that seems remarkable given that Mormonism is an American-born Christian faith whose members promote conservative social values, patriotism, community service and industriousness.
Curiosity about Mormonism will intensify as Romney continues his march towards the Republican nomination. The question is whether increased media attention will advance understanding or indulge the sensationalism that has followed Mormonism for 180 years.
Since its beginnings in 1830, Mormonism has often attracted the wrong kind of attention. Founder Joseph Smith's claims that he received visitations from angels and discovered new books of scripture incurred suspicion among Mormons' early neighbors in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. After Mormon migration to the Midwest in the 1840s, Mormon leaders' theocratic ambitions and polygamy incited anti-Mormon mob violence in Missouri and Illinois.
Negative attention followed the Mormon exodus to Utah in the 1840s and 1850s. In 1856, the national platform of the Republican Party placed Mormon polygamy alongside slavery as the "twin relics of barbarism." 19th century political cartoons routinely depicted Mormons as alien, deceptive, and menacing. In 1903, the election of Utah Senator Reed Smoot, who was also an LDS Church leader, occasioned a year-long national show trial on the issue of Mormons' fitness to serve.
A century later, 14 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints serve in the U.S. Congress, but Mormonism continues to be the object of sensationalism. Comedians routinely lampoon elements of Mormon belief and practice, while political commentators like Lawrence O'Donnell have delivered diatribes targeting the faith and its founders. In October, Pastor Robert Jeffress stole the national spotlight when he declared Mormonism a "cult" in what may have been an opportunistic bid to promote his forthcoming book. Media personalities who target Mormonism often do so with a curious degree of intensity. Heavy Mormon participation in divisive campaigns against same-sex civil marriage may have only aggravated this intensity of feeling about LDS people, especially among liberals.
Mormons have developed strategies for coping with alienation from the American mainstream. From the 1840s through the 1930s, geographical isolation in the intermountain west fostered an almost ethnic sense of Mormon identity. Old patterns of guardedness and social insularity still remain within Mormon culture. For their part, LDS Church officials prefer a highly-managed communication style that minimizes controversial aspects of the faith and emphasizes commonalities with conservative Christianity.
These coping strategies may actually contribute to Americans' uncertainty about Mormonism. The public sees sensationalized media depictions of ultra-orthodox Mormon polygamist communities, like those led by convicted FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, as well as carefully manicured images of conservative likeability projected by Mormons like Romney. Who is the real Mormon: the self-proclaimed polygamous prophet, or the cautious candidate with the Donny Osmond smile?
The truth, of course, is more complicated than such a duality allows. What is needed now is substantial coverage that places controversial elements of Mormon history -- including Smith's reported unearthing of the Book of Mormon, the practice of polygamy, and the historical ban on priesthood participation by men of African descent -- within a humanizing context featuring a diversity of Mormon perspectives. American voters also deserve thoughtful coverage of the globalization of the Mormon faith, its treatment of women and gays, and LDS institutional styles of decision-making, management, and communication. All of these matter to how Romney, for whom Mormonism is not only a family heritage, a culture, and a faith but also a primary shaper of his leadership style, would preside.
It is time to step beyond the old cycle wherein Mormon difference and insularity engender public distrust and antagonism, which in turn aggravate Mormon alienation. Both Mormons and voters who consider the prospect of a Romney presidency deserve better.