Mormonism: The Last Fifty Years

January 16, 2014 | 14 comments
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mormon imageOver the holidays I read The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception (OUP, 2013), by J. B. Haws, a BYU history prof. Technically, the book is a study of how the LDS Church and Mormonism in general is perceived by the American public, and the author presents survey data throughout the book to gauge the ups and downs of the various ways that Mormons and the Church are viewed. No doubt the book is required reading for every LDS Public Affairs employee. But for most readers the book also serves quite nicely as a narrative history of the last fifty years of Mormonism. A lot has happened and a lot has changed: reading about George Romney’s 1968 quest for the Republican nomination for President is like reading about another world.

It’s worth contrasting LDS history since “normalization” in the early 20th century with what came before. The LDS story in the 19th century is full of movement (from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois, then across the Great Plains and across the Rocky Mountains to Utah) and action (conflict with local neighbors, conflict with state and local government, even conflict with the United States Army). But the era of movement and action was over by 1910. After that, LDS history is all about institutional development, doctrinal evolution, and social change. A history of Mormonism in the last 50 or 100 years requires a different approach than the first 50 or 100 years. Without injecting a good deal of sociology into the mix, an account of LDS history of the last 50 or 100 years is likely to miss most of the story. So a book that focuses on public perception of Mormonism is not treating a marginal issue, it is actually an effective way to tell the main story of Mormonism over the last 50 years: What has happened? What has changed? What worked well for the Church and its membership? What did not work out so well? The fact that most readers lived through some or even all of the events covered likely makes reading the book more relevant, even more personal, for most readers. I will touch on two episodes in the book to encourage readers to go buy a copy of the book and get the full story.

Civil Rights. This was a really big deal in the Sixties, and the Church became, at times, a target. An easy target. In late 1969, Stanford cut all intercollegiate sports activities with BYU. A BYU sportscaster dodged a Molotov cocktail at a Colorado State game in 1970. Fourteen black football players on the University of Wyoming team were dropped from the team when they pressured their coach for permission to wear black armbands during the BYU game in 1969. Days later, an LDS public relations official and a young Darius Gray, one of Mormonism’s unsung heroes, went to Wyoming to meet with the student protestors, making a surprisingly positive impression on a large and unhappy crowd. In 1972, when the Disciples of Christ cancelled an upcoming national meeting in Salt Lake City to protest the LDS priesthood ban, it was Darius Gray who went to Indianapolis to meet with Disciples officals for two days to correct misinformation and again make a positive impression with those he visited. The bookends of this rather difficult era for the Church are probably 1963, when the NAACP threatened to stage protests at General Conference (this was headed off by a statement read at General Conference by Hugh B. Brown, a member of the First Presidency, that endorsed “full civil equality for all of God’s children”), and 1978, when President Spencer W. Kimball’s unexpected revelation ending the priesthood ban was announced to the Church and affirmed by the membership. Ironically, by 1978 the issue had largely faded from public view and there was little public pressure on the Church for a change.

Evangelicals. There has always been some institutional friction between Mormonism and Evangelicals, but it really flared up in the 1980s. Haws notes the building of LDS temples in Atlanta (1983) and Dallas (1984) as one reason why Evangelicals suddenly gave more attention to combatting the Mormon menace. Walter Martin published The Maze of Mormonism in 1978. Haws devotes several pages to the film The God Makers, which came out in 1982. The most interesting quotes in this section were from Greg Johnson, a Salt Lake City pastor who, as a teenager in the 1980s, would attend Sunday night screenings of The God Makers at Evangelical churches to share his conversion story (out of Mormonism) with the audience. Later in the book, Haws recounts how Johnson moved from anti-Mormon activism (my term) to supporting academic Mormon-Evangelical dialogue. It was Johnson who initiated discussion with BYU Religion prof Stephen Robinson that led to the book How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (1997) that Robinson co-authored with Evangelist scholar Craig Blomberg. Johnson later began his own round of public Mormon-Evangelical conversations with BYU Religion prof Robert Millet. [I posted notes to a 2012 presentation by Johnson and Millet.]

It is interesting to contrast the race issue, which received little discussion during Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid, with the Evangelical issue, which was a big deal during the campaign, at least the primaries. Haws covers that campaign, as well as Prop 8 and The Book of Mormon musical, in the final chapter. One theme he pursued throughout the book was the contrast between perceptions of Mormonism as an institution (rich, secretive, threatening, repressive) and of Mormons as individuals (friendly and family-centered, nice neighbors, don’t smoke or drink). That perception didn’t change much over the fifty years Haws covered in the book. That split image of Mormonism in the American mind seems like the biggest challenge the Church faces in the next fifty years.

14 Responses to Mormonism: The Last Fifty Years

  1. James Olsen on January 13, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    Without injecting a good deal of sociology into the mix, an account of LDS history of the last 50 or 100 years is likely to miss most of the story. So a book that focuses on public perception of Mormonism is not treating a marginal issue, it is actually an effective way to tell the main story of Mormonism over the last 50 years

    I wonder if this isn’t more a matter of sociological accessibility than anything unique and contrasting in our last 50 years. But it gets at something that I consider really important: we’re fascinating with both our history and any sociological evidence we can find (well, at least so far as it fits into a faithful narrative, but for most of us I think even beyond that). This is because we’re not merely an institution. Rather we’re a covenant people. As a people we don’t just see history or social science data, but we divine the hand of God in it. And we see our very selves in it. At the least, since we feel and cherish a strong sense of solidarity, understanding our history and movements increases that sense of solidarity.

    Consequently, as you note, I think this looks like really important reading.

  2. Nathaniel Givens on January 13, 2014 at 9:09 pm

    Thanks for this interesting review, Dave. I’m particularly interested as someone from a slightly younger generation because I often feel like I was born in the middle of a story. I came along 3 years after the priesthood ban was lifted and 12 years before the September Six, just to name two big events that are frequently discussed but which I have no contemporary memory of. (I was around for the September Six, obviously, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear anything about it until years later).

    As you say, Mormon history of the last 50+ years is kind of one united chapter, and I’ve only seen portions of it myself. This book looks like a great way to fill in the gaps.

  3. Frank McIntyre on January 14, 2014 at 8:46 am

    “Ironically, by 1978 the issue had largely faded from public view and there was little public pressure on the Church for a change.”

    That is interesting to me and I don’t doubt it, but I am curious what the evidence is. Had Stanford, for example, stopped boycotting us? Or does the author mean the issue was just not really in the news anymore?

  4. Dave on January 16, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Frank, I think his view was that by the late 70s civil rights in general was not the volatile issue it had been throughout the 60s, and that consequently the LDS priesthood policy received less public attention. By 1978, the LDS priesthood policy was just an unfortunate feature of the social landscape for most people.

  5. Mark B. on January 16, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    The evidence of absence of pressure is a little harder to find than the evidence of pressure: protests and firebombing are easy to document, whereas the lack of those things aren’t so easy to prove.

    But, as one who lived through those decades, I can confirm that the issue got a lot more attention in the late 60s, early 70s than it did by the late 70s. And nobody noticed Stanford’s continuing boycott of BYU athletics. Nobody pays attention to an absence of games 10 years after a boycott is announced.

  6. Eric Nielson on January 16, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    I think the difference of perception of the church and of its’ people is fascinating.

  7. Christopher on January 16, 2014 at 7:37 pm

    Thanks for the review, Dave.

    One note: J.B. teaches in the religion (not history) department, at BYU.

  8. Dave on January 16, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    Thanks for the info, Christopher. According to his bio, he has a PhD in history, so I am going to consider him a history prof serving in the College of Religious education.

  9. Frank McIntyre on January 16, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    Thanks, Mark/Dave. I was not yet in kindergarten at the time so I have to admit I felt little pressure from the ban.

  10. Randy B. on January 17, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    Good timing, Dave, as I just started reading this last night. I’ll have to confess that I’m only 35 pages in and Haws is already getting under my skin with what appears to be a subtle but concerted effort to not call a spade a spade. I don’t have this reaction, at all, when reading Bushman, Givens, Flake, etc., but this just book feels slanted, like there is an ever-present thumb on the scale. I suppose part of this is just the natural effect of a BYU religion professor (even one with a PhD in history) tackling this particular issue.

    What are your thoughts as to his even-handedness?

  11. Dave on January 17, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    Randy, I would probably describe his approach as sympathetic to the LDS viewpoint on the issues and episodes recounted in the book. But there is enough objective survey data and quotes from contemporary accounts that one can disgagree with LDS statements or actions as well as agree with Haws’ sympathetic view of most LDS actions or statements. The book is published by Oxford Univ. Press, after all.

  12. Randy B. on January 17, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    Well, OUP selectivity isn’t what it used to be. But your assessment that Haws is generally sympathetic to the LDS viewpoint is consistent with what I’ve seen so far.

  13. Geoff - A on January 20, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    Is there mention of the campaigns of the church against gay marriage and how that affected it’s popularity?

    I understand we are now the least popular Christian church. I would have thought this is recent, and the result of this lack of love for our fellow men(the gay ones particularly). Surely this must affect missionary work too.

  14. Dave on January 20, 2014 at 8:21 pm

    Geoff, Prop 8 and the earlier Prop 22 are covered in the book. As noted, there is a difference between how people view Mormons as individuals (generally positive) and how they view the Church as an institution (generally negative).

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