The Post-“Mormon Moment” Moment

In 2011, Mormonism was called an “outsider faith.” Today, it’s more a part of the national conversation than it was before. What the “Mormon moment” means for the church a year after Romney.

People walk past the Salt Lake City Temple on the way to the Conference Center during the opening session of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ General Conference in October. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

The phone rings a little less often than it used to at the public affairs office of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The “Mormon moment” is over.

Wednesday marks a year since the 2012 election, the end of a media-dubbed Mormon moment when press attention to the church skyrocketed due to Mormon Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, The Book of Mormon musical, and a church advertising campaign that sought to change public perception of the faith. Since then, media interest in Mormonism has waned.

“As we all predicted, the volume of media calls received by the Church is less than it was during the election period, but is still very steady,” church spokesman Lyman Kirkland said in an email.

Although Mormonism isn’t in the spotlight like it was a year ago, it’s more a part of the national conversation than it was before Romney’s candidacy, and how the faith is perceived, both inside and outside the church, has changed.

“I had thought initially that after Romney lost, the media would stop being interested in Mormonism, but that hasn’t happened,” said Matthew Bowman, a visiting assistant professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College and author of The Mormon People.

The Mormon moment was the just latest spike in interest toward the religion. The term was first coined in a U.S. News & World Report story about the church’s growth pegged to the dedication of a temple in Houston in 2000. Since then, events like the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 and Romney’s first presidential campaign in 2007 made Mormonism more newsworthy. The term “Mormon moment” was used again in 2011 for a Newsweek cover story in which Mitt Romney’s head was photoshopped onto the body of a leaping missionary from The Book of Mormon musical. The subtitle: “How the outsider faith creates winners.”

A search of U.S. newspaper and newswire headlines over the past 20 years shows that interest in Mormonism in 2013 is higher than it has been in any year except 2011 and 2012, when interest peaked. And according to Kirkland, coverage of the faith is deeper and more thoughtful than before. Even fairly routine events like the church’s semi-annual general conferences are considered newsworthy in a way they weren’t previously.

“The questions we receive now tend to focus on a broader range of more substantial subjects, whereas a year ago they were most often related to the election,” Kirkland said. “In the weeks preceding the election we received a lot of trivial questions from people scrambling to do almost any kind of story.”

In The New York Times, for example, a story on Mormons struggling with doubt was given front-page placement in July; a story about remarks made by President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the church’s first presidency was among the top 10 most shared online stories the weekend of the general conference in October; and last week, a story about the growth of Mormonism among Navajos in Arizona was published. Americans, it seems, are still interested in Mormons.

They also understand them better. According to a December Pew poll, 16% of respondents said they learned either “a great deal” or “some” about the church during the campaign. The number of respondents who said they felt they had “a lot” in common with Mormons increased to a quarter of the total respondents in a year.

Some negative views of the church persist, however. When Pew asked respondents for one-word responses to describe the church, although positive words like “good,” “family,” “honest,” and “friendly” increased to 24% from 2011 to 2012 and negative words decreased to 22%, the top word was “cult.”

But Phillip Barlow, chair of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, said he believes negative portrayals of the church became more moderate during the campaign due in part to “Mormon fatigue.” “I think for the public, or the press themselves, the novelty wore off,” Barlow said.

Many Mormons worried the campaign would result in attacks against the church, but those attacks never really materialized. More than a year before the election, a Dallas preacher who dared to call Mormonism a “cult” was hammered on cable news for his comments, and by the Republican National Convention in September 2012, Romney’s religion had transformed from a liability to an asset, with a significant portion of the final night dedicated to his time as a local church leader.

But the progress Mormonism has made isn’t necessarily permanent. After all, religion was more of an issue for Mitt Romney than it was for his father, George, who ran for president in 1968 — proof that acceptance of Mormonism actually decreased over 30 years. And there’s no guarantee that what the public learned about the faith will stick.

“If you go back and look at all the articles that were published about Salt Lake City in 2002, they’re almost identical to the articles published during 2012,” said Matthew Bowman, author of The Mormon People.

Some would argue the significant and lasting impact of the Mormon moment isn’t about changes in public perception, but within Mormonism itself.

“I think there is perhaps a greater sense within Mormonism that Mormonism is an actor on a national stage, that things that happen within Mormonism matter,” Bowman said.

He pointed to a recent revival among Mormon feminists. In October, a group of women stood outside the church’s Conference Center in Salt Lake City and were denied entrance to the all-male priesthood session of the general conference. “The renewed interest in Mormon feminism has played out with a sense that people are watching. It was done purposely as a media event.”

For Geoff Openshaw, host of the This Week in Mormons podcast, Mormons are “more publicly proud” than they were before.

“We’ve had to publicly represent and defend ourselves more,” he said. “I think a lot of people are being more forwardly Mormon.”

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