- The Washington Times - Monday, July 11, 2011

It’s not exactly hip to be Mormon, but you wouldn’t call them square, either. At least not right now.

The famously uncaffeinated, highly conservative Utah-based church is suddenly the toast of the political and entertainment worlds. Two of the top contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr., belong to the church, with Mr. Romney widely viewed as the early GOP front-runner.

“The Book of Mormon,” the irreverent musical about Mormon missionaries in Uganda, won nine Tony Awards last month and remains the hottest ticket on Broadway. The last season of the HBO series “Big Love” was must-see TV. Then there’s Stephenie Meyer, the Mormon author of the hugely popular Twilight books, and Glenn Beck, a Mormon convert whose radio show and books continue to draw a dedicated following despite his high-profile departure from Fox News.

These days, Mormons are impossible to ignore, which may be why even the mainstream media is paying attention. Newsweek, not exactly a friend of conservatives, ran a June cover story on the church with the enthusiastic headline, “Mormons Rock!” The New York Times ran responses by 10 political, historical and religious experts Tuesday to the question, “Are Republicans now ready for a Mormon president?”

Just about everyone seems to agree that this is a “Mormon moment.”

Jan Shipps, the pre-eminent non-Mormon expert on the church, argues that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the official name of the religion founded 164 years ago — already has had two such moments since the turn of the century: the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and Mr. Romney’s high-profile run for the GOP presidential nod in 2008.

“So this would be the third ‘Mormon moment’ of the 21st century,” said Mrs. Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religion at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of several books on the LDS church. “And it’s still a really young century.”

The result, she said, has been the raising of the church’s profile and an improvement of its image among non-Mormons. A few more such moments, and Mormons could find themselves following in the footsteps of the Jews as members of an achievement-oriented minority faith whose clout as opinion and cultural leaders far outstrips their numbers in the population at large.

“They’re becoming stronger, not necessarily in their numbers but in their visibility,” Mrs. Shipps said.

Mormons already have surpassed Jews in numbers. Members of the LDS church constitute 1.4 percent of the population, while Jews make up 1.2 percent, according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey.

The LDS church places its membership at 6 million, while the ARIS survey says it’s closer to 3.2 million. Either way, that’s not enough to push a would-be presidential candidate to victory, and voters have shown themselves wary of Mormon candidates in a way that no longer holds true for other faiths and minorities.

A Gallup poll released June 20 found that 22 percent of Americans would not support a Mormon candidate for president in 2012, a number that has remained “largely unchanged since 1967,” according to the survey. But the comparable percentages of U.S. voters who would never vote for a Catholic, Jewish, Baptist or black candidate were all less than 10 percent, according to the Gallup survey.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, responded to the New York Times query by saying evangelicals, who do not accept Mormons as authentic Christians, likely would support a Mormon over the Democratic alternative.

“President Obama and his policies are so deeply unpopular with a majority of these voters that more of them would be likely to ‘hold their nose’ and vote for a Mormon, if he were indeed the GOP nominee, against the incumbent president,” Mr. Land said.

Quin Monson, associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, said the effect of having two credible LDS candidates in the GOP field may be to draw more Mormons into the political process.

“I think this is a big deal, and it’s an especially big deal because they’re both highly qualified, attractive, proven candidates with fundraising ability,” Mr. Monson said. “What you see around here is a lot of excitement among students in particular. And they’re already at work with both campaigns.”

That the LDS church has delivered two well-regarded candidates may say more about the candidates themselves than the church’s image within the political and social mainstream, he said.

“It’s not so much that the church is more or less accepted, it’s that you have two well-qualified candidates who happen to be LDS,” Mr. Monson said.

The church reissued a statement on political neutrality in response to the candidacies, saying that the church’s “mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians.” At the same time, it issued a new statement June 16 noting that its full-time leaders “should not personally participate in political campaigns.”

The church showed its media savvy by refusing to be baited into criticizing “The Book of Mormon,” whose relentlessly obscene book both satirizes and sympathizes with its leading Mormon characters. While the show has plenty to offend the average Mormon, a church statement said only that the real book “will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”

The church then launched a publicity campaign in Times Square showing posters of people of all ages and ethnicities announcing, “I’m a Mormon.”

Ordinary LDS members also appear to take the show and its hit status in stride.

Blogger Emily L., posting on the website mormonperspectives.com, acknowledged she felt “uncomfortable” in two of the show’s dozen or more scenes, but added, “I saw it — and I lived to tell about it.”

“All in all, it’s vulgar, but fairly harmless towards the Church directly,” she wrote. “It has about as much impact as an episode of ‘South Park’” — the animated show that first made the authors of “The Book of Mormon” famous.

The church “is taking advantage of this to make people think better of them,” Mrs. Shipps said. “They are not dumb about things like this.”

One not-so-great Mormon moment came after the passage of California’s Proposition 8 in November 2008. Gay-rights advocates blamed the measure’s success largely on the involvement of Mormons, who contributed heavily to and campaigned for the measure banning same-sex marriage.

Mormons were targeted for protests outside temples and took a beating in the press. At the same time, their stance in favor of traditional marriage had the effect of improving their reputation with evangelicals.

What’s beyond argument is that Mormons showed themselves to be forces on the national scene. Whether they can string such moments into real cultural and political momentum remains to be seen.

“This does suggest that [Mormonism] has arrived as a mainstream topic. But you never know. These things ebb and flow,” Mr. Monson said. “It will be interesting to see what’s happening in 10 years, when there’s no presidential race or show on Broadway.”