Understanding the Mormon Faith

An Interview with Joanna Brooks

Sally Steenland interviews award-winning scholar Joanna Brooks about the history of Mormonism and its progressive tradition.

SOURCE: School for Advanced Research

Listen to the interview here (mp3)

Joanna Brooks is an award-winning scholar of religion and American culture. She covers Mormonism, faith, and politics as a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches. In 2011 Politico named her one of the “50 Politicos to Watch.” Her new book is The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith. She and Sally Steenland talk about the Mormon faith and politics, political coverage of religion, history of the Mormon Church, and the progressive Mormon tradition.

Sally Steenland: The Mormon faith is unfamiliar to millions of Americans, so there is a fair amount of conjecture, suspicion, and stereotyping about Mormonism. If you could tell people one or two important things about the faith, what would they be?

Joanna Brooks: The first thing is that Mormons know how to walk in two worlds. Like members of any orthodox faith or insular culture, they invest in relationships with other Mormons and participate in religious practices open only to their faith, yet know how to balance this with an involvement in broader American society. Sometimes there’s a tendency to sensationalize or even sinisterize aspects of Mormon practice that remain closed to non-Mormons such as Mormon temple rituals or ceremonies. But Mormons know how to balance an inner world and an outer world and how to negotiate the two pretty gracefully.

The second thing is that Mormonism is a dynamic faith. Even among orthodox believers, there’s a sense that God continues to speak, that more knowledge and revelation are forthcoming. That means the church is capable of change. We see that in the history of race in the Mormon church. Many are aware that people of African descent did not have access to lay priesthood and participation in temple worship until 1978, which is a very long time—far too long. But since the church extended full participation and the church leadership changed policy, the church has made tremendous strides toward incorporating people of color, reaching out to people of African descent. The changes haven’t always been led by people at the top, but there is dynamism within the faith.

SS: What you said about people knowing how to walk in both worlds sounds true for a lot of faith traditions.

JB: Absolutely. It’s true particularly of the role of secrecy and how much misunderstanding that can generate. My husband is an anthropologist who works in Native American communities. When we go into their communities, we’re not allowed to go into kivas in Pueblo societies. There are places we can’t go out of respect for the religious culture. Yet Native Americans know how to interact in mainstream American society and balance their ritual and religious obligation with their mainstream identities. The same can be said of Mormons.

SS: Let’s talk about attitudes toward Mormons as reflected in research polls. Four in 10 voters tell pollsters they’d be uncomfortable with a Mormon president. Yet when it comes to actual voting in the Republican primaries so far, Mitt Romney, the Mormon candidate, has carried the evangelical vote in some states but not others. Are polls a reliable indicator of people’s voting behavior or are there dynamics the polls are not capturing?

JB: I find the polls fascinating. And I follow them pretty closely. But I don’t think we have a complete body of data yet. I would love to see someone ask a follow-up question: “Why are you uncomfortable with a Mormon president?” I think there’s a diversity of reasons for individual voters’ discomfort. Voters who tend to be more liberal are going to know the church’s record on LGBT rights, its historic antifeminism, and might think, “If he’s Mormon, he’s going to be conservative, and I’m not voting for a conservative. Period.”

Voters on the right will have different concerns. I’d love to see their reasons fleshed out, since conservative voters should be aligned with most Mormon candidates on ideological grounds. Maybe it’s something they heard at church, or it’s their perception of Mormons as a closed society, or it could have to do with polygamy. I don’t think we have a good read yet on what Mormonism means to the American people as a whole.

SS: That’s a good point because polls do show that some liberal people, who you would think wouldn’t have a religious test for office, express hesitation about voting for a Mormon. Maybe they don’t object to doctrines of the faith, but instead to the religion potentially being a proxy for political conservatism.

JB: Right. And Romney is not an unflawed candidate. Sometimes I sense that Mormonism stands as a proxy for his inability to connect with everyday voters. He doesn’t give off that populist vibe. He doesn’t have the common touch that we love in our politicians. There are all sorts of qualms people have, and the readiest name for them is Mormonism.

SS: And when you’re the only candidate representing your faith, gender, or race, you carry the weight of the entire tradition. People see you and say, “You stand for the whole.”

JB: Four years ago pollsters asked, “Are you comfortable voting for an African American president?” There was this notion that people might say they were comfortable, but when they went into the privacy of the voting booth, they wouldn’t pull the lever for Obama. Yet that didn’t materialize in a documentable way.

I suspect that if you gave someone in an anonymous phone poll the right to tacitly approve or disapprove of an unfamiliar American minority group, they might say, “Yeah. I don’t like the Mormons so much. I don’t know why.” Perhaps every American minority group goes through this moment when the nation grapples with, “Who are these people? What do they want?” And then people go on and make fairly predictable political decisions anyway. I think we’re having that moment.

SS: When the group is unfamiliar, people ask, “Are they going to take over? Are they going to obey somebody else instead of the Constitution?”

JB: I don’t think there’s anything about Mitt Romney’s political career up to this point that suggests that he’s weighted by some wild visionary prophetic impulse.

SS: The man loves to sing patriotic songs, for heaven’s sakes.

JB: I know, he’s extremely careful. He’s carefully managed and highly technocratic. That reality doesn’t reflect the everyday concerns we hear, much like the concerns surrounding President John F. Kennedy that he’d obey the pope. Some people just don’t like the idea that a Mormon prophet might have the ear of the president.

SS: I’m glad you brought up Kennedy because people have compared him and Romney. When Kennedy ran for office in 1960, there was a lot of suspicion toward the Catholic faith. People thought Catholics wanted to take over the world and there’d be a phone on his desk that went straight to Rome. Romney is facing some similar fears. When you look at 1960 and 2012, much has changed. But what’s the same in terms of religious intolerance and what’s different?

JB: My favorite take on the comparison between Catholics, Mormonism, and the presidency is from my friend Jana Riess who wrote a piece for The Washington Post a few weeks ago saying that Romney isn’t comparable to Kennedy in 1960. Romney is more comparable to the 1928 presidential candidate Al Smith because Romney is really one of the first.

There have been other church members who have run for president—about 14 of them in fact—including church founder Joseph Smith more than a century ago. But Romney is the first serious contender on a national ticket. So the environment he’s encountering is much more like the one Al Smith encountered in the 1920s when anti-Catholicism was much more widespread. So maybe in 40 years we’ll have a Mormon candidate to compare to JFK.

SS: Maybe your children?

JB: Well they’re girls, so that would be great.

SS: The first female Mormon president!

JB: Exactly.

SS: Public attitudes towards Mormonism, Romney, and the campaign are shaped in part by the press. In your writing and speaking, you’ve criticized some of their coverage. Can you talk about that? And what would you like to see?

JB: The press has such a broad meaning. There’s the professional journalist press, and with every election cycle, there’s an ever-broader array of social media, blogs, and online publications that aren’t journalistic in nature and play by perhaps fewer rules when it comes to covering religion. Many have less substance regarding religion, especially where it intersects with politics.

When I think about how the national papers of record are covering Mormonism, there’s a lot to be praised. The Washington Post has done an excellent job covering issues that pertain to the faith community. For example, they covered Romney’s time as a bishop—a local lay clerical leader—which is a position that tens of thousands of men around the world hold at one time. They interviewed people with whom he served and developed a multidimensional picture of his personality as a faith leader. They included voices of Mormon feminists who interacted with Romney, and they didn’t sensationalize the issues. They humanized the role of the bishop in the Mormon community. It was a really wonderful piece.

In the last few days there was a piece on the op-ed page of The Washington Post by a woman who’s a former Mormon and has written about challenges the church faces in managing controversial aspects of its history. In the same pages they’ve had Michael Otterson, a PR spokesperson for the church. There have been a range of Mormon voices talking in ways that reveal the humanity and inner dynamics of Mormon people.

But I’ve seen instances that have concerned me. Sometimes folks make their way onto the opinion pages who might have marginal knowledge of Mormonism, yet merit quite a few column inches riffing off the less savory facts about our tradition and applying it to the presidential race. We’ve seen this in reputable papers.

There are many experts on Mormonism. There are scholars and articulate people, some of them members of the church, some of them not, teaching in places like Vanderbilt University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Pennsylvania, who should be brought into the national conversation. It concerns me when the national conversation about us takes place as if we’re not in the room watching it all unfold. It would be nice for the people who know our tradition best to be included in the conversation. They don’t have to be Mormon people. There are wonderful experts out there who aren’t members of the church, and it’d be great to see them getting column inches too.

SS: In 2008 the Mormon church contributed heavily to the Proposition 8 campaign in California that would prohibit same-sex marriage. That kind of antigay activism shapes the public image of the church.

JB: I think it’s important to be candid and fact-oriented when it comes to Mormonism’s historical record. We have to acknowledge that this is a church that’s been on-record both in terms of volunteer hours and money—from individual members and from the institution itself—to stop gay marriage not only in California but in Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Arizona, and other states.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, the church gave resources and muscle to defeating the Equal Rights Amendment. These are parts of Mormon history. But it helps to understand the institutional culture of the church. The church doesn’t work by committee; there is a chain of command. It is a centralized organization and highly bureaucratic. The decision-makers at the top tend to have been in service a long time. So this is a tradition that moves very slowly, and one in which there might be disagreement between younger folks and the leadership in Salt Lake City—the church’s headquarters. This is a culture that prioritizes respect for leaders, obedience, and sacrifice.

So there is always a complicated story going on within Mormonism about how newness emerges and where it comes from. I actually think we’ve been seeing a lot of movement on the ground in terms of acceptance and compassion for LGBT people within our own community. But in many respects, the emotion animating that comes from members themselves. People are doing documentaries, starting websites, producing Mormon “It Gets Better” videos, and looking after LGBT people in their own communities who are facing a hard time. The Internet has been really important for connecting progressive elements of Mormonism.

SS: When you talk about the Mormon faith, you say that this is a relatively recent religion that was born in America. You call it “an innovative branch of Protestantism.” What do you mean by that? What is some of the baggage that comes with being a more historically recent religion? And what do you mean by innovation?

JB: Let’s start with the question of innovation, for a little history lesson. Some people don’t view Mormonism technically as a Protestant faith. I’d characterize it as Protestant because its roots are in Protestantism. Joseph Smith observed and participated in the Second Great Awakening, an era in American history with a tremendous amount of religious upheaval. There was an impulse to cast off older denominational ideas and experience a more primal encounter with the power of God in the Christian tradition. It was almost a fundamentalist turn in the early 19th century.

Many faiths emerged from that movement with the impulse to restore the church to its original simplicity and kept their message quite simple. But Mormonism, as it moved west and over the career of Joseph Smith, innovated new layers of belief, doctrine, and practice. That innovation starts with the Book of Mormon itself. Joseph Smith’s grand contribution to the founding of Mormonism was the production of the second book of scripture that stands alongside the Bible. Again, this runs counter to the basic impulses of Protestantism, which have been, especially in its fundamentalist strains, about restoring original simplicity between the soul and God unmediated by churches.

The production of the second book of scripture as an elaboration of sacred stories is a pretty radical move in the history of American religion. And this went forth, including innovated temple ceremonies and innovated theologies about heaven and polygamy. In Mormonism there are basic Protestant beliefs in the divinity of Jesus Christ and his paying for the sins of the world. That is all present but there are other layers on top of it.

Our newness translates often into a continuing sense of the literal presence of the divine. Mormons believe that God appeared to Joseph Smith. That sense of the divine is very close. The belief that revelation didn’t stop with the Old Testament but continues in human life today is pretty distinctive and is taken pretty literally in Mormonism.

SS: Are there illustrations of that today, where someone gets a divine visitation, an inspiration, or new interpretations?

JB: That’s a fascinating question because close observers of the culture note that the rate of newness has slowed dramatically in Mormonism. People who fear that a Mormon prophet might tell a President Romney to do something dramatic should probably tune in and watch what actually happens at Mormon conferences where church leaders speak twice a year. It’s all on the Internet. Notice how very conservative most of the messages are: “pray,” “be good to your families,” “be honest in your dealings,” “avoid pornography”—these are the messages that Mormon prophets are delivering today.

There are some who wonder where the newness has gone. On the other hand Mormon people are alive to the possibility of change. Mormons tend to be helpful and optimistic, to believe things are going to work out. If things are not clear or right, or are difficult, there is more light and knowledge ahead. This can contribute to the sense of hopefulness in the Mormon tradition even when change is slow.

SS: If you look at Mormonism as a whole, it seems to be a pretty successful demographic. I imagine that change and innovation could rock the boat and threaten stability and success.

JB: Yet I think there are times when we see the older, more theocratic sense of Mormonism reassert itself—especially in a willingness to stand apart from the mainstream. Prop 8 was not an easy fight for Mormon people. I say that as someone who, personally, out of conscience, did not vote for Proposition 8. But I had close friends and family members who felt obliged by faith to support it.

The stance they took was not easy. It was an extremely contentious campaign. There are times when Mormons will put themselves against the mainstream on certain issues. They are still willing to do hard things and stand out and be different.

In terms of demographics this should be said: There is a perception that all Mormons are like Romney, or like J.W. Marriott, chairman and CEO of Marriott International. But we really aren’t. Statistics put our income in the middle bracket—higher than evangelicals, lower than Hindus, Jews, and Episcopalians. Also the global Mormon church is very different than it is in the United States. More than half the membership now lives outside the United States. To talk about Mormons in a global sense, those perceptions just don’t apply.

SS: I’m glad you brought that up. Are Mormons equally distributed around the world, or are there pockets of density the way there are in the United States?

JB: There was a large amount of missionary work in South America in the 1970s and 80s, so there are a lot of members in Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, along with a broad distribution across Central and South America. There are strong pockets in the Philippines, Japan, and the South Pacific—like a third of Tonga and a third of Samoa. There is a strong and distinctive Polynesian Mormon culture. Growth right now in Africa is rapid. So there is both broad distribution and distinct pockets.

SS: I want to go back to politics and the campaign. As we said, polls show some discomfort voting for a Mormon president, but when you push that bit, a number of conservatives say, “If Romney is the nominee, I’ll vote for him because I have a much stronger desire to defeat President Obama.”

JB: Right. I think partisanship is stronger than sectarianism in this country. If you look at the potential for a depressed turnout in 2012, if the contest is Romney versus Obama, it may be a depressed turnout anyway. There are evangelical voters who will insist on staying home so as not to vote for Romney.

SS: I have to interrupt. Are you saying the voters will be depressed? Or that they’ll be fewer of them?

JB: Fewer. But maybe depressed too. It’s tough sledding out there. It may be tough to get 2008 voters back to the polls. There was something magical in 2008 that may be hard to capture after the Great Recession.

SS: We’ve talked about the history of the church, politics, and more. Let’s zoom in on you. You grew up a Mormon and you are still a Mormon. Can you tell us why?

JB: I describe myself as a Mormon by ancestry, by upbringing, but also by affiliation and conviction. I have had the opportunity to step back and examine the beliefs I was raised with, evaluate them, and make adult choices from a place of careful consideration. Even after a great deal of education and searching, Mormonism has remained my spiritual lexicon, my vocabulary, my mother tongue. I find it a challenging tradition, a rich tradition, a robustly imaginative tradition, inspiring, and difficult all at the same time. But I feel a great sense of purpose as a Mormon progressive especially when I work with other Mormon progressives to help create more capacity in our tradition for progressive thought and to honor the progressive potential in Mormon theology and the sacrifices our ancestors made.

I think about my own pioneer ancestors: My grandmother’s grandmother crossed the plains when she was a very small child. I think about people who were willing to give up everything they knew for a spiritual quest and the hope they had for building a better world. It has carried me through and shaped my progressive politics. I feel good about that legacy and it’s one that I want to share with my children. It’s a beautiful American story that I’m glad to be a part of and happy to pass down.

SS: Thank you so much for talking with us today, Joanna.

JB: I appreciate it, Sally.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative