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MITT ROMNEY AND THE MORMON MOMENT

By Brittany Karford Rogers (BA ’07)

BYU scholars discuss Romney’s presidential candidacy and the Mormon moment.

Among the crowd at BYU’s election-night viewing party on Nov. 6 were reporters from the Washington Post and the New York Times—just two of the many media outlets that came calling on BYU during the presidential campaign of 2012. There, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with students in BYU’s Varsity Theatre, they interviewed partygoers amid the euphoria that erupted with each swing-state announcement, red or blue.

Yes, there was a lot of blue. Red too.

The national publications’ interest in the event is part of a larger story—the Mormon moment—created by the candidacy of BYU alumnus W. Mitt Romney (BA ’71). It’s the story of what this moment means in the political and religious landscape.

This particular Mormon moment—more months than moment—came with the heightened media exposure, curiosity, scrutiny, and buzz surrounding the LDS faith and culture as Romney sought to become the first Latter-day Saint to win the nomination of a major U.S. political party.

But it is not the first Mormon moment. A Mormon moment happens every decade or so, says history professor J. Spencer Fluhman (BA ’98), who studies Mormonism in the American mind. “In fact, the term ‘Mormon moment’ was coined in 2002 with the Olympics in Salt Lake City,” he says.

And the moment does not necessarily belong to Mormons alone. “Both candidates were in the minority, racially or religiously,” says Fluhman. He notes that this makes the 2012 election a defining moment for diversity in America at large—a moment for Americans to ask, “When we say, ‘We, the People,’ what does it look like?” and “Who do we think the ‘we’ is? . . . How big does the circle get?”

Political science professor J. Quin Monson (BA ’96, MA ’96) has studied that circle and Latter-day Saints’ place in it—specifically, how Americans perceive Latter-day Saints. Some of his research has shown that there are no social norms moderating anti-Mormon statements. “In other words, it’s still OK to publicly express anti-Mormon sentiment and not receive the social disapproval of those around you,” says Monson. But despite this finding, the 2012 moment gives him reason to think that perceptions are changing.

Looking at the media coverage in the final months of the campaign, he says, “There [was] an unwillingness to do a lot of stories about Mitt Romney’s religion. Mitt Romney . . . stayed away from it, and the media . . . covered the campaign without delving into the details of Mormonism too much. There [was] a hesitancy to go there.” Political science professor Kelly D. Patterson (BA ’82, MA ’84) agrees: “The negative stories are there, but they’re few and far between. I don’t think [they] dominated.” At the very least, the exposure gave the nation a chance to learn more about Latter-day Saints, says Monson, “because most people don’t know one. In our survey data, only about 15 percent of Americans actually know a Mormon personally.”

Monson and Patterson have also examined how Latter-day Saints reacted to their time in the limelight. The findings: more than 70 percent thought Romney’s candidacy was a positive development for the Church. Members also found Romney to be a positive symbol of their faith. “He has the highest rating—up there with Steve Young and some of the other popular figures in LDS culture,” says Patterson. The Mormon moment also shed light on Mormon voting behavior. “We thought we might see Mormon voters [of all parties] flock to Mitt Romney,” says Monson. “But really, remarkably, it looks a lot like earlier elections.” While about 25 percent of the Mormons who voted for Obama in 2008 moved toward Romney, Latter-day Saints otherwise voted according to their personal party preference.

With such insights into Latter-day Saint Americans, and with a connection to the Republican nominee, BYU’s Political Science Department was heavily drawn upon for commentary from news outlets the world over in the election season. “I certainly think we have a more prominent national voice than we’ve ever had before,” says political science professor Christopher F. Karpowitz (BA ’94, MA ’96), and he extends that acknowledgement to BYU as well. “I think it says a lot that an alumnus of our institution was seen as a credible representative for one of the two major political parties in the United States. I think that says something about the level of acceptance and the level of acknowledgement of BYU and the education that we provide here.”


Take a look at the life and career of BYU alum Mitt Romney in a Facebook photo gallery.

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