Religion and Politics

A Mormon Moment: A Conversation with J. B. Haws

Interview by Devan Jensen, Religious Education Review magazine, Winter 2012, page 21

J. B. Haws (jbhaws@byu.edu) is an assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.

Devan Jensen (devan_jensen@byu.edu) is executive editor at the Religious Studies Center.

Q: This year’s presidential race is fascinating because we have had two Mormon Republican candidates. What are the implications of having them run for office?

A: We’re seeing the convergence of a lot of issues. This campaign is such a close follow-up to Mitt Romney’s first campaign that we’re able to juxtapose the treatment of Mormonism three or four years ago with the treatment now. First, the sheer attention coming to the Church is a positive thing. The fact that so many people are talking about Mormons is wonderful. Mike Otterson, the director of Church Public Affairs, said that the mantra a couple of decades ago was bringing the Church out of obscurity, and he said that doesn’t seem to be the issue anymore. Now the issue seems to be fostering trust and understanding. In the coverage of this presidential campaign, a number of media voices seem to be seeking clarity, asking important questions about the Church—what we stand for, what we believe, what all these misconceptions mean, and where they can find more accurate information.

Q: Could you tell us about the history of the Romneys that you are writing? What in the political landscape has changed since George Romney ran for president?

A: I didn’t realize how good George Romney’s chances for presidential success really were. For much of 1967 he was one of the front-runners. Several polls put him at the top of the Republican pile. He had a viable chance of winning the nomination. I always assumed that his Mormonism was a big deal and that it took him out of the running. But looking back, it doesn’t seem to be that way. It seemed that most voters and the media were pretty willing to accept his Mormonism. There wasn’t the type of attention we have on Mitt Romney.

This was an era when President Kennedy’s campaign seemed to have really set the tone—that a Roman Catholic could be elected president and that he would give his speech and say religion shouldn’t matter. The decade was also filled with things like the Vatican II Conference in Rome and a lot of ecumenical movements, so the feeling in American Christianity was that we were seeking after unity rather than something polarizing. George Romney benefitted from this trend and the fact that Mormons had been getting really good press, probably since the 1930s with the Mormon welfare plan.

What seems to have changed between George and Mitt Romney is that the Church got a lot more publicity in the late 1970s and early ’80s, including a lot more negative publicity. The 1970s were the decades of the Homefront series and the Osmonds. A 1977 poll gathered public opinion about Mormons: 18 percent of respondents gave Mormons a very favorable rating, while 36 percent of respondents gave them a favorable rating. Thus 54 percent of Americans gave Mormons a favorable view.

Then public opinion took a real turn toward unfavorability. A 1991 survey came on the heels of the movie The God Makers and the Mark Hoffman murders. What had crept in was a feeling that the Church as an institution was secretive, was repressive, was trying to hide its history, was somehow linked in this conspiracy of murder and intrigue and forgery, and was a strange cult that practiced rituals in temples that the world didn’t feel comfortable with. In 1991 only 6 percent ranked Mormons as very favorable and 21 percent said somewhat favorable. The favorability was cut in half from 1977 to 1991: 54 percent to 27 percent.

Of course, President Hinckley’s administration made some great strides toward favorable public opinion with the Olympics, the sesquicentennial wagon train, Joseph Smith’s bicentennial—these were all really high moments of great favorable publicity. But those underlying, latent suspicions really came out when Mitt Romney ran for president.

Things have gotten better, even in the last three years. Mitt Romney’s 2007–8 campaign may have been a low point in the public’s perception of Mormonism. But as Gary Lawrence, a Latter-day Saint pollster, put it, “The media hates old news”—and all those salacious, sensational stories are now old news. Writers now seem to focus on why antagonists are saying these things. What is it about Mormons that inspires all this? So now we’re looking at deeper issues and trying to shed a little more light. CNN did a poll after Pastor Jeffress’s comments in which 80 percent of Americans said they would feel comfortable voting for a Mormon and only 17 percent said they wouldn’t. At the same time, only 51 percent of Americans said that we were Christians. Most polls say that less than 50 percent have a favorable view of Mormons in general. There are still hurdles ahead, but the fact that the vast majority of Americans say they’re comfortable voting for a Mormon president—even with all of the negative publicity that has come since George Romney’s run—offers an encouraging sign that some hurdles have already been cleared, and maybe for good.