Michael Otterson advised the press: to understand Mormonism, go to the source and allow Mormons to define themselves. But what if these Mormons are survivalist Joel Skousen, Tea Party painter Jon McNaughton, or Tammy, an anti-government gun-toting rodeo queen from Overton, Nevada? All three were lengthily interviewed on French national radio. What if this Mormon is a high-ranking Church representative who answers questions evasively in robot-like fashion, as one Belgian journalist remarked? What if these Mormons are a Utah couple who, after Obama’s reelection, sent a dramatic email to a friend of mine, a non-Mormon Flemish politician, to say that the U.S. had “passed away” and that “killed in this same massive, catastrophic, progressive wreck were personal freedoms, American values, The Constitution, economic growth, conservatism, fiscal sanity, American unity, free markets, life’s sanctity, marriage between man and woman, Republicanism, free will, self-reliance and many more.” This Mormon couple used to be good friends with this Flemish woman — until they discovered she belonged to a green party. “No reasonable discussion was possible anymore”, she told me. All she receives now from them is extremist mail.
But, thank heaven, there is also Jim Dabakis. More later about him.
A lot of attention has been given to the so-called “Mormon moment” in the U.S. How has a similar phenomenon affected the perception of the Mormon Church abroad? I can only speak about its effect in parts of Europe. I sampled media reports from a dozen countries. They are exceedingly varied, from a few acceptable analyses of Mormonism, to dozens of superficial and flawed ones, including the cheapest ridicule. Some countries have more than others, largely in line with known groupings: countries critical toward new religious movements, like France, Germany, and Belgium, have more; countries less sensitive have fewer. Links in this post are only to a fraction of the reports I read and heard. Moreover, I did not include in the assessment the myriads of blogs and comments, nor a handful of recently published books on Mormonism, nor the always active anticultist propaganda, which all also contribute to the perception of Mormonism. I do not claim this to be a thorough analysis, rather an overall impression.
The Mormon traits that stick
The global result is, in my opinion, rather negative, in spite of Mormon triumphalism claiming that the Church is the “real winner” of the presidential election. Perhaps in the U.S., not in Europe where Mormons are so often misrepresented that we are delighted when a media report portrays us without venom, even if the presentation is shallow and deformed. We are elated when a piece is on the whole balanced, like one surprising TV-documentary in Romania. But a global assessment should weigh more reports and also differentiate between the surface and the loaded message underneath. The surface may display the usual positive Mormon images – snippets of pioneer history, missionaries, a glimpse of a Sunday meeting, a loving family, and, with some luck, welfare and humanitarian work. The loaded message, however, sits in the impressions that last. That message can be overt, even hard-hitting, like in the infamous BBC documentary by John Sweeney, which was rebroadcast in other European countries. Sometimes the overt message is spiced with a vicious dose of satire, as in this German article. But often the stings are stealthy under the surface. Most journalists, even in an overall objective report, include provocative items in order to sound critical and to generate better reader-and-viewer ratings. There are plenty of items to select from and that manage to slither into the text: temple secrecy, rigidity, racism, gender inequality, sexual repression, homophobia, baptism of Holocaust victims, extreme wealth, three-hour Sunday services, garments, creationism, Kolob, divinization, polygamy, polygamy, and polygamy. These are traits that catch attention, but which also stick in the audience’s memory.
Talking about our efforts to bring the Church “out of obscurity”, Michael Otterson discerned phases we deal with: “If Phase 1 had to do with the church’s visibility, then Phase 2 — which will be about achieving understanding — still mostly lies ahead.” Indeed.
Mitt Romney: his impact on the view of Mormonism
Europe is overwhelmingly pro-Obama. So is most of the world: according to this MSN poll, 81% of people outside the U.S. would have voted for Obama. That means that from the onset European journalists, even in so-called objective reports, tended to pick up the negative Romney image: a wealthy, harsh businessman, stiff, unsociable, unfriendly to women’s issues, etc. Romney himself did not help to change this perception. His trip to Europe in July 2012 was unimpressive to put it mildly. His repeated negative references to Europe in campaign talks and his view of a bipolar world order reminiscent of the cold-war era did not earn him much sympathy abroad. Not that he needed that sympathy to win in the U.S., but as Joe Twyman said, “ … history has shown that when a president is unpopular with the people of Europe it can have a far-reaching effect on how those people view the whole United States”.
In the same vein, to the extent that Romney was depicted as Mormon – which happened recurrently and triggered the media interest in Mormons –, it also affects how people view the whole of Mormonism. The effect is dual.
On the one hand, the image of a clean-cut politician at that leadership level, former governor of Massachusetts, probably surprised the public: apparently not all Mormons belong to an Amish-like cult in the American West nor are they pioneer-dressed polygamists (though it was still often stressed that Romney descended from polygamists who fled to Mexico to escape American law). Telling is that the media almost always referred to the “Mormon church”, and not the “Mormon cult”. One French analyst concluded that to still call Mormonism a cult is “as cruel as it is unjust”. That in itself represents progress.
On the other hand, a number of aspects tainted the picture. Romney’s self-proclaimed “severe” conservatism is perceived as tied to his Mormonism. That connection is easily and superficially broadened to the overall image of extreme American religious conservatism (discussed in the next point). Another frequent parallel drawn between Romney and the Mormon Church concerns “immense secret wealth”, as in this German article. Romney’s America-centeredness and exceptionalism is equally tied to Mormonism (also discussed further). Offending Palestinians by belittling their culture is, according to this German journalist, the thing to do from Romney’s Mormon pro-Israel stance. Romney identified Russia as the “number one geopolitical foe” – a statement which made headlines in the U.K and elsewhere in West Europe. Even more of course in Russia, where negative reactions connected Romney with Mormonism as this or this Russian articles show. Directly or indirectly it has consequences in public protests against the Church in Russia and a current anti-Mormon campaign.
As the presidential campaign progressed and Romney started his move to the center, then won the first debate, some journalists began to present Romney in less derogatory terms, like this one in Spain. Some journalists also noticed the diminishing impact of religious affiliation in U.S. politics, like this Dutch broadcast or this Swiss article, implying Mormonism was losing interest and impact. Toward the end, one Belgian political analyst titled an article Romney is no freak, named him a “valid candidate”, and chided the press for having distorted his personality. It was a lone late voice.
Mormons: extreme religious conservatism, even “integrism”
In the past, media reports in Europe often stressed Mormonism’s mysterious seclusion on the Wasatch Front. The recent presidential election made them position Mormonism in relation to American politics and other churches. The prevailing message now is that the Mormon Church is “an extreme-conservative Christian church”, which, moreover, is moving toward a menacing right-wing coalition with evangelical fundamentalism and Catholic ultra-conservatism. Prop 8 had already shown the coalition with Catholics. Romney’s ultimate acceptance by the religious right proved the developing alliance there. That thesis is also found in more academic analyses, like in Prof. Lernout’s Jezus in Amerika. Rigid standpoints on abortion, contraceptives, euthanasia, or stem cell research, as defended by the Catholic Church, are therefore identified as “Mormon” as well. Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as running mate reinforced that perception. It does not mean that conservatism as such is despised, but the association with radical and quaint religious viewpoints. At one point an article identified Romney as one of those lunatics who believed that “Moses walked with the dinosaurs”.
Rank-and-file Mormons unwittingly confirm this depiction of extremism by their own focus. In various European media reports, local members, when asked what it means to be a Mormon, mostly answer that they don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol, coffee or tea, and have no sexual relations outside marriage. They define themselves by strict interdictions. In one TV-broadcast a Mormon woman stated that from her youngest age she had three objectives in life: the first never to drink or smoke, the second not to have sex before marriage, and the third to marry in the temple and become a stay-at-home mom. She proudly confirmed her achievement of all three. Mormons know how these objectives fit into a much broader framework. But for a public ignorant of Mormonism, the formulation evokes a narrow, controlled life of prohibitions and of a submissive marriage, the kind of existence outsiders also imagine for women in strict Hasidic or Wahhabi traditions.
All this makes some media, as in this Swiss report, use the term “fundamentalists” to identify all practicing Mormons (as opposed to non-practicing ones). They also use the even scarier term “integrists” as in this French article. Integrism, in Europe, has the religious connotation of anti-modern radicalism and potential for violent militantism. Integrists want to integrate all aspects of a nation under a single, dominating ideology. The fear of integrism is real in West and East European countries that have known fascism or communism. It helps explain current anticultism and islamophobia. Some ex-Mormons are eager to confirm Mormon integrism to journalists whose reports thrive on controversy and fear-mongering. These ex-Mormons, who paint the Church as a sinister power, surface in media reports in several countries, like in this German one or in the already cited BBC documentary. For these opponents it is not difficult to locate verbal integrism in Mormon Scriptures, hymns and parlance, to point to our massive proselytism as the menacing narrative put into action, and to portray the Church’s excessive demands on individuals and families and its “insidious” social control through home teaching and worthiness interviews. In some reports we come out as a bloodcurdling cult.
America-centeredness and U.S. exceptionalism
Of particular interest to some journalists is the relation between Romney’s America-centeredness and exceptionalism (restore America’s greatness, reaffirm global world leadership, pro-Israel support, etc. ) and Mormonism’s America-centeredness and exceptionalism (Book of Mormon themes, God’s chosen land, New Jerusalem, etc.). “God created the United States to dominate the world” – dixit Romney from his “Mormon lyricism”, according to this article. A Flemish radio journalist, Bert De Vroey, confronted me with that topic, as well as our T&S blogger Craig Harline, former missionary from Flanders and now an expert on Flemish religious history. It was interesting to notice how Craig and I somewhat struggled with an acceptable answer. We cannot deny the obvious Mormon scriptural basis for America’s centeredness, but we can clarify it does not say “U.S.A.” Moreover, as Craig explained, American centeredness is an “American” thing, shared by many, not just Mormons. At the same time the internationalization of the Church and the concept of multiple Zions invites one to broaden the horizon to a universal perspective, which is the present Church’s message. Since the 1990s, doctrinal America-centeredness has been virtually absent from General Conference talks and Church magazines. Craig conveyed it all very well, and in fluent Dutch, in Bert De Vroey’s radio interview (scroll down, select 2012-11-01, play, go to 36’25”).
But among media reports it was exceptional. Mormons à la Joel Skousen, Jon McNaughton, our Tammy in Nevada, and thousands of other Constitution-devoted American Mormons are eager to tout their veneration for a strong U.S.A., some even including white-horse-prophecy folklore. That is what media prefer to point out, as in this Belgian one or in this Italian one. Mormonism is presented as “quintessentially American” in its quaintest aspects. In a German article on national level, Chris Herrod and his wife Alia, identified as Mormons, affirmed that Obama wants to change the U.S.A. into a socialist country like the Soviet Union. Mormons are out to save America as the hope of the world.
In her also rather negative assessment of the Mormon moment abroad, Laurie Maffly-Kipp remarked how much the “Americanness of the Mormon faith” has been reinforced by Republican Mormons and their U.S. patriotism. She is also right that in some countries the image of “clean-cut, white-shirted missionary dyads set off alarms within jittery foreign governments” because of the rumor that scores of them work (or will later work) for the CIA.
Many journalists who visited the “Mormon West” this past year were keen on finding a variety of voices – certainly not only official Church representatives because, as several journalists told me, these representatives – “always men” – tend to be “shielding” and are “as courteous and tense as State guides in Moscow in the 1970s”. It explains why an experienced journalist like Daniel Mermet wanted to find a range of independent, stress-free witnesses, from Tea Partyist Tammy to Jim Dabakis. Other journalists did too.
Thank you, Jim. In his warm, jovial way, Jim steadfastly defended the Church by rectifying misconceptions and by pointing at positive developments in terms of tolerance and diversity – all the more credible because he speaks as an unconventional Mormon, gay, and Democrat. Interviews with Jim can be found in national outlets such as the German Frankfurter Allgemeiner, the Belgian De Standaard, and the French France Inter (start at 34′ 50″). In the latter interview, he bursts with enthusiasm: “Mormons are big hearts, they’re generous, they are warm, they are great neighbors. I’ve lived here for many years. I’m the gay head of the Democratic party and I have had only great exchanges with Mormon church leaders.” Jim reassures audiences that the Church has no political ambitions. He points at the Church’s emphasis on the human side of immigration. Sure, a moment later he lambasts Republican “extremists” in the Utah legislature, but clarifies “it doesn’t come from the Church”.
Regretfully, Jim’s input was limited in the vast wave of media reports. But each of his interventions was precious as counter-weight. He deserves our gratitude. And, of course, also Harry Reid, though I could not find European articles where he was interviewed. But to parade our diversity, church PA has been repeating ad lib to scores of journalists: “No, not all Mormons are Republicans. Harry Reid … ” The fact that he is in favor of gay marriage and a member in good standing is touted in a panel with church representatives in this BBC radio broadcast (at 31’13”). For church PA, what better illustration of Mormon diversity and tolerance? But how fellow Mormons treat Harry Reid in reality, especially in Utah, is quietly passed over.
To conclude, some considerations
1 – Church PA and the rest of the world.
Jason Horowitz mentioned in The Washington Post that “the perception Americans and the world have of the church is the chief concern of the hierarchy in Salt Lake City. In recent years, the church has heavily marketed itself as a multiracial, multicultural and exceedingly Everyman faith. It spent millions on an “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign that appeared on billboards and televisions across the country.” Those efforts may bear fruit in the U.S. (?), but in European countries the road is still long and arduous. Moreover, “perception” is one thing, but to what extent does it reflect reality? Church PA seems fixated on conveying a “perfect image”. Honest questions are answered summarily and evasively. “Less is better” seems the rule. The interviews I heard and read with Church members were often contrived, tense, and, especially, empty – with a few exceptions. Interviewed church representatives played defense, as they allowed journalists to focus on controversial topics. They were seldom able to redirect content and articulate Mormonism’s strengths and unique perspectives, as well as honestly discuss some of its challenges. It is painful because they are very dedicated and want to do their very best. The media managed, almost naturally, to let Mormons define themselves in rigidity and interdictions, or as the last lone defenders of familial and moral values in a permissive world.
One of the paradoxes we face is that the Church’s pursuit of normality and mainstream acceptance equals loss of media attention. Journalists are not interested in a story that shouts how ordinary we are. Journalists pay attention when Mormonism and Mormons have something to contribute on a newsworthy level. Romney was a temporary attraction and thus a springboard for media reports, but that appeal is gone. In the U.S. church PA and American members have enough leverage and networking to generate continued attention to Mormonism, but what can be done elsewhere? It does not help to send weedy news releases to general media outlets. News comes from original and intriguing items released to topic-specific journalists who are on the lookout for such. For example, the recent Owlet Baby Monitor was also an instant article in a main Belgian newspaper, but PA missed the chance to channel it first to the media and highlight the Mormon connection. In each country PA should immediately know of such unique opportunities and instantly mail the info to topic-specific journalists. On the spot transmitting of newsworthy items is only one example. There is much more to be done.
2 – Something preposterous.
Vocal Mormon Republicans, devoted to a strong U.S.A. and unable to separate religion and politics, contradict the perception of diversity and tolerance the Church wants to market. These people gain attention from the media as they have an aggressive, controversial story to tell. Journalists use the voting figures from Utah to confirm how Mormons think. They continue to bring up Prop 8. An audience abroad, unaware of tendencies and nuances, is thus easily led to believe that the Mormon Church is deeply America-centered, ontologically Republican, and conspiring with the religious right for political power. Not true? The recent disclosure of the political affiliation of most members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve is devastating for the image of an international, politically neutral church. There is something preposterous to claiming the status of “world religion” when the highest leadership is affiliated with the American party most despised by the rest of the world.
3 – Filming church services.
In a number of documentaries, TV-crews were allowed to attend church services. That should be a unique chance to give audiences a feeling of our worship. But the prohibition to let them film prayers and ordinances (baptism, sacrament, baby’s blessing, ordination) reduces Mormon worship to talks and lessons. Of course, there should be respect for the sacred and there are privacy concerns, but in many cases it is feasible to make proper arrangements with willing, missionary-minded members to film glimpses of those special religious moments. That way audiences get an idea of what constitutes the deeper, spiritual appeal of Mormonism. This core aspect of our faith is totally lacking in media reports simply because we don’t give access. Why then lament that outsiders don’t understand us?
4 – Our frustrated brothers and sisters.
Some ex-Mormons (or inactive Mormons) have a serious negative impact when voicing their bitter stories in the media. However, it would be unfair to dismiss them as having a destructive agenda. They also convey the message that as a Church we failed toward them. Their frustrations should make us reflect on causes we may be responsible for: unreasonable pressures from parents and leaders, the all-or-nothing rhetoric pervading many talks and lessons, or offensive reactions to a personal crisis. It is a difficult topic, this balance between requirements and leniency, one I question in this post as an unsolvable dilemma, but which deserves more attention, in particular in countries where retention is a major problem and lost sheep are bleating on the internet and to the press.
5 – The effect on members.
For members in Europe, who feel already badgered for being part of a misunderstood minority, the barrage of incorrect, unbalanced, and sometimes obnoxious portrayals can become traumatic. Such media reports deeply affect members who have been serving for years if not decades with unrestrained altruism and who exhibit in their daily lives true Christian charity. Their children are often the only Mormons in their school. These members are a tiny minority, part of small church units. They suffer when coming across another article with distortions. They cringe when yet another TV-documentary presents Warren Jeffs as a “Mormon leader”. I just want to express my admiration for these saints, but I reproach church PA for not providing the means to counter such media reports appropriately.
A final word. My overall “rather negative” assessment of the Romney-related “Mormon moment” in Europe is not to be seen as pessimistic for the future. This moment was only a segment in a long chain of episodes. Some episodes have been highly successful in Europe, such as the Osmonds-era in the 1970s, which brought thousands of young people into the Church, many of whom our now seasoned leaders, men and women. But I also believe the intensity of the latest episode, around Romney, should invite to more analysis and critical reflection with an eye to improvement.
Comments are appreciated. However, this post is not about political choices and controversies, but about Mormonism in the international media and the causes and consequences of perceptions.