Look no further than Broadway (The Book of Mormon is a hit) or television (Big Love and Sister Wives, about the polygamous lives of fundamentalist Mormons, are too). Or the Republican race and the candidacies of Jon Huntsman (now defunct) and Mitt Romney, the on-again, off-again frontrunner.
But while they may be in the spotlight more than ever before, if this is their moment, pity the Mormons.
“By any standard, Mormonism is more ridiculous than any other religion,” said Bill Maher last October.
“Magic underwear. Baptizing dead people. Celestial marriages. Private planets. Racism. Polygamy,” was Maureen Dowd’s summary of the faith.
The Daily Mail, the most popular online newspaper, more recently, ran a picture of the “Mormon underwear” with speculation about whether or not Romney wears it.
And New York Times columnist Charles Blow assumed Romney did last month, when he tweeted about his own success as a single parent, and somewhat inexplicably added that Romney should “stick that in your magic underwear.” (He later apologized for the tweet).
As much as we hear about Mormons in the media, we don’t often hear from Mormons, and that’s a shame.
“Mormons in America,” a Pew report released in January, demonstrates the cost of the missing Mormon voice: According to Pew’s survey, 62 percent of Mormons feel other Americans know little or nothing about their faith. Forty-six percent of Mormons feel there is “a lot of discrimination” towards Mormons. Thirty-eight percent feel news coverage of their faith is unfair.
Theoretically, this may be an ideal moment to broaden understanding of Mormon views and to remember the American values of religious freedom and tolerance.
Yet, much of the commentary on Romney’s faith this has campaign has cast The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as strange, cultish, and perhaps most of all, something to be mocked. And Mormons have noticed.
“The dominant frame that has arisen in this election cycle is that Mormons are weird,” says Sherry Baker, a communications professor at Brigham Young University, who has studied media coverage of Mormons throughout history and in select political campaigns. Baker sees this message emanating from both religionists (a la evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress: ‘Mormonism is a non-Christian cult) and anti-religionists (a la Bill Maher) and then amplified in coverage.
(The message got a different wrinkle when Politico reported in August that one of the Obama campaign’s strategies would be to portray Romney as “weird.”; Though Obama’s campaign denied it, many in the pundit class argued the term was code for Mormon.)
Baker says she has observed a third strain of the “Mormons are weird” narrative emerging in opinion media this year: that “Mormons are too good.” Jana Reiss, who happens to be a Mormon, discussed the trend in a post featured on The New York Times’s “Room for Debate” blog that asked “Can a candidate be too perfect?”
“Commentators will say [Mormons] are hardworking and they’re kind and they’re devoted to their families and they’re self-disciplined and they sort of represent the American dream,” says Baker. “And then they go on to talk about how these are all negatives.” She points to a recent article in New York by Frank Rich:
He can come across like an android who’s been computer-generated to be the perfect genial candidate… Richard Nixon was epically awkward too, but he could pass (in Tom Wicker’s phrase) as “one of us.” Unlike Nixon’s craggy face, or, for that matter, Gingrich’s, Romney’s does not look lived in. His eyes don’t show the mileage of a veteran fighter’s journey through triumphs and hard knocks—the profile that Americans prefer to immaculate perfection in a leader during tough times.