Journalist Richard Ostling talks about Mormon America

In Part 1 of our coverage of journalist Richard Ostling’s Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, we raised the question that millions of Americans are asking this year: Does Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith matter? In their deep and compelling look at Mormon history and contemporary life, Ostling and his late wife, co-author Joan Ostling, answer that question: Yes, indeed. In fact, they added a section on Romney when they last updated their book. (See Part 1 to read excerpts of their book.)

Today, Richard Ostling talks with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm in …


DAVID: In Part 1 of our coverage of your book, we quote from your introduction: “In that quest for respectability, two momentous dates stand above all others,” then you point to the end of polygamy in the main Latter-day Saints church more than 100 years ago—and the end of official racial bars in the 1970s. Why are those such crucial milestones?

RICHARD: Polygamy and race are the two most remarkable things about the LDS church when compared with the general run of American religion. The idea of polygamy still rankles some people, but it was more or less taken care of back in 1890. However, the church’s revision of its racial teachings dates to 1978. So, it’s interesting to speculate what would have happened if George Romney (Mitt’s father) had been a more major player in the 1968 presidential sweepstakes. I wonder how the racial policies of the LDS church would have played into that political process. I think that alone would have eliminated Romney at some point in the 1968 campaign.

The racial question lingers, because of how long the church held this policy of barring people of African blood from almost any church position of significance. It was a remarkable policy and it was held tenaciously by the church for such a long period of time—even through the 1960s and most of the 1970s. It’s a major historical puzzle about the church and I think it will remain so for some time.

DAVID: Mormons would counter that all American denominations had racial divisions through most of our history.

RICHARD: Yes, religion is so intimate and close to our hearts that affinity is a part of all religious bodies. Most African Americans are more comfortable in black churches than in white churches. Greek Christians tend to be comfortable in Greek Orthodox churches. We could go on and on. What stands out as distinctive with the Latter-day Saints is that their system of racial discrimination was elevated to a really astonishing level of church policy. It was at the very core of church teaching. Even in the bad old days of racial segregation there was nothing quite comparable that took place in mainline Protestant or Catholic denominations. It raises a question about the church’s nature over the last 150 years and the ways that revelation works in the church’s highest leadership.

DAVID: Since we’re talking about historic bigotry by some Mormons—let’s also talk about bigotry against Mormons. In November, we’ll see the first-ever Mormon candidate for president from one of America’s top political parties. The church’s founder, Joseph Smith Jr., was killed by a mob as he was contemplating a run for the presidency. Where do we stand on the eve of our 2012 election? Does bigotry against Mormons run deeper than we are seeing in polls?

RICHARD: The general poll data indicate wariness toward Mormons and the idea of a Mormon in the White House. Some polls indicate it’s similar in intensity to the feelings of wariness toward a devout evangelical. It will be a factor in the election, but, in the end, it may not count for much. The reason is: The people who are most concerned about the LDS church as a religious rival to their own denominations or as a questionable faith are evangelical Protestants—and these are the folks most likely to be active in political campaigns, to turn out at the polls and to vote for a Republican. The heart of the Republican coalition is going to help Romney a lot regardless of any religious questions. Opposition to Romney being Mormon played a bigger role in the primaries, helping Rick Santorum and hurting Romney in some states. But when we get to November, I think Republicans can count on evangelical voters to turn out and support the candidate.


Click the book cover to visit its Amazon page.DAVID: How do you see the church’s progress toward acceptance by non-Mormon religious leaders? I know this is a complex question and varies widely across the U.S. But, generally speaking, where do we stand with ecumenical relations nationwide?

RICHARD: In general, you have to remember that the average American is only vaguely aware of the LDS church. The awareness is greater than it was a generation ago, mainly because the church continues to expand. But I think the general impression among other Christian groups is: “They’re a little different than we are, but we’re not clear on the details.” Or, “They seem to be nice folks.” Or, “We don’t know much about them.” Those are vague responses so there is no way to clearly answer your question. But, I think it’s also true to say: A sizeable portion of the population realizes that there are serious issues distinguishing the LDS church from other Christian denominations.

We should say that, from the LDS church’s perspective, they would agree with some of the critique from other groups. Non-Mormons will say: As we understand our historical branches of Christianity, Mormons do not agree with us and therefore the LDS church is not a part of the great ecumenical tradition as we understand it. OK, if someone describes the situation that way, then Latter-day Saints would agree with them. This goes back to the revelation of Joseph Smith. God appeared directly to Joseph Smith and told Smith that all the existing church bodies at the time had incorrect creeds.

DAVID: That’s a good way to explain the distinction. I know that, on a basic level, Latter-day Saints would say: “We’re Christian—period.” But it’s also true that their church originated as a breakaway reformation of traditional Christianity. I’m sure readers are wondering, though: How Mormon is Mitt? We’re all familiar with Richard Nixon’s claim that he was Quaker, which certainly didn’t square with Nixon’s public behavior. Other presidents and candidates have claimed a religious affiliation, but have rarely darkened a church door.


RICHARD: At one point, he was a bishop. Compared with other Christian denominations, that term is used a little differently in the LDS church. “Bishop” means that he was a part-time, pastor-leader of a congregation. He also was the head of his stake, which is a term for a regional body that’s roughly similar to a diocese or a district in a Protestant group. So, he was an important leader in the church and his appointments to these positions were made from the very top of the church. His devotion to the faith was regarded as without exception from the Latter-day Saint perspective. If he is elected, it would be like electing a clergyman to the presidency. Now, the moment I say that, I have to quickly add that Mormons would object to my saying it quite like that. They insist that their church is led by lay people. But, Romney was the pastoral head of a local congregation and a regional body. Beyond that, the Romney clan goes way back in Mormon history. His father was very well known as a devout Mormon. And, of course, Marion Romney was George Romney’s cousin and Marion eventually was part of the church’s First Presidency, the term for the three men who preside over the entire LDS church.

DAVID:  Yes, Marion Romney was part of the top trio in the church from 1972 through 1985, so through that same era we just discussed when the historic racial teachings finally were changed.

RICHARD: It’s fair to say that the Romney family, including Mitt, is seen as an exemplar of Mormonism—not just in devotion to the church and in financial contributions. More than that, their lives represent what Mormonism holds dear: closeness and loyalty within a family, a faithful husband and faithful wife and, of course, success in one’s chosen career. All of those things make Romney quite a contrast, let’s say, to a religious pioneer like John F. Kennedy. Those who knew the intimate history of John F. Kennedy realized that his religious and moral views would not have pleased most Catholics.


DAVID: People may know a bit about the big-business relationships within the Latter-day Saints. But, you include quite a lot of new research into this aspect of the church in your book, making your book probably the best source I know for a good overview of how these factors shape Mormon life to this day.

RICHARD: Putting it simply—Mormon leaders tend to be very successful businessmen. Mitt Romney may be more successful than average, but there are also ways we can fairly describe him as typical of aspiring and successful young Mormons. The church is unusual, because it is not run by formally trained theologians, but by businessmen. None of the presidents and apostles who have run the church over the years was theologically trained in the kind of scholarly preparation that members would expect in a Presbyterian or Episcopal or even a Southern Baptist congregation. Generally, Mormons have tended to elevate successful businessmen to top positions in the church.

This has the effect of enshrining secular vocations as part of what church leaders do. In addition, Mormons represent all kinds of virtues that help you in business: thrift and good organization, as examples. The church’s interest in evangelism and missions might be called its promotion and marketing. In fact, because of the numbers of Mormon young people who serve missions in other countries, Mormons as a group are less parochial than a lot of other American groups. As a result, they fit very snugly into the kind of globalized economy we know today.


DAVID: I’ve been a religion newswriter nearly as long as you have, Richard. I have reported from Salt Lake City. And, I think we both can say: These are very difficult issues to report in an accurate and balanced way.

RICHARD: That’s true, but my wife and I really worked to make this a nonpartisan book. Most books about the church come from a viewpoint: pro-Mormon or anti-Mormon. We reported on the church as journalists. We wanted to understand it with some intelligence and also to be candid about the church’s past and present. This book is a one-volume run-down on everything Mormon. There isn’t another book on the market like that, as strange as that may seem. There were a couple of attempts at it a generation or so ago but there is really nothing else of this type available on the market.

DAVID: I’ve read your book more than once—when it first came out and then I have re-read portions of it after your expansion of the book. It seems balanced to me. Now, I’m sure Mormons would rather not answer more questions about the long-standing racial bias of the church. On the other hand, you point out strengths of the church, as well.

RICHARD: Right. This book is not a Mormon defense and it’s not a Mormon expose. We do report some uncomfortable things from the church’s perspective, but we are not trying to attack the church. If anything, our point is to say to non-Mormons: Hey, you smug Protestants and Catholics, there’s a lot that you could learn from these folks. It’s a very successful subculture in America.

DAVID: And the future?

RICHARD: Journalists are wary of making predictions. But, I would say: In the United States, the LDS church will continue to expand. And in most years in the future, it will be among the fastest growing church bodies. The church now is the fourth largest denomination in the U.S. and it will be nipping at the heels of the third largest: the United Methodist Church. Then, it has to go quite a ways beyond that to become second largest, but eventually it may rival the Southern Baptist Convention. This really is an important nationwide faith that is only going to become more important as the years go by.

You can order Richard Ostling’s Mormon America: The Power and the Promise from Amazon. It’s a great book for small-group discussion in any congregation.

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