As a sixth-generation Mormon, I’ve watched Mitt Romney’s presidential runs with the interest of a relative. We’re not related. I’ve never spoken to him. He leads a lifestyle of affluence and prominence that I can scarcely imagine. And yet he’s familiar to me.
Mitt seems like an old acquaintance because we are both products of a small, insular, unusual culture–Mormonism. Our ancestors were followers of Joseph Smith. They settled the Rocky Mountain west, and they handed down to us a potent faith that churns out men of unmatched caliber. Men like my father, like my husband, like my brothers, like Mitt Romney.
To most Americans, though, Romney is far from a father figure. In fact, for many voters, his faith is a cause for suspicion. The words people use in opinion polls to describe Mormons are mostly negative, and, almost invariably, voters consider Romney’s faith a liability. If Romney were Protestant, he could go home now to rest before his coronation. But as it is, he can’t seem to seal up the nomination no matter how lousy his opponents
I assume this is because voters are ignorant about Mormons, but it’s still disturbing. We’re your neighbors, your dentists, your teachers. We’re the patient in your hospital, the customer at your cashier register. We work alongside you in the PTA. You coach our child’s soccer team. We serve together in the military. And when you’re running for office, we vote for you. We’re really nice. And we’re very American. So what’s the problem? Why can’t you vote for us?
I’m reminded of an interview I did with a Navajo student while studying journalism at Brigham Young University. He complained that other students exhibited prejudice toward him in assuming from his appearance that he was Hispanic. “But isn’t that ignorance, not prejudice?” I asked. His reply has stayed with me: “There’s a fine line between ignorance and prejudice.”
In defense of ignorant or prejudiced Americans, I admit it’s often hard to get to know us. Many Americans have never met a Mormon, or at least don’t realize they have. Others may live next door to us, and yet our worlds only intersect superficially. We’re so busy running our Church (we have an entirely lay ministry) and raising great big families, that most of us don’t find time to socialize with the larger community. You might see us mow our lawn and load up the van for a Boy Scouts expedition, and yet the word “Mormon” still
brings to mind a bearded polygamist.
So who are we really? What does the word “Mormon” bring to mind for someone who has spent her life inside that world?
To me, Mormonism is my mother singing, “Saturday is a special day, it’s the day we get ready for Sunday. We wash our hair and shine our shoes, so we don’t have to do it on Sunday.” The next morning, I wake to the sound of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Now mom has curlers in her hair as she chops onions and potatoes for the crock pot.
Mormonism is an electrician who wears a suit on Sundays. His son wears a white shirt and tie so he can pass the sacrament to their church congregation.
Mormonism is hymns that sound like lullabies, with lyrics like “I Am a Child of God” and “Home Can Be a Heaven on Earth.”
Mormonism is dancing in a gym to Brian Adams. My boyfriend kisses me on the forehead and a chaperone appears to gently remind us that this is not appropriate.
Mormonism is sermons about saving money and teaching children to work.
Mormonism is dressing in white to make covenants with God.
Mormonism is saying goodbye to 19-year-old boys who are excited to give up girls and movies to talk about Jesus Christ in a different language.
Mormonism is dusty little towns in Utah and Idaho that were settled by my ancestors.
Mormonism is contemplating history and eternity.
Mormonism is believing the world’s most powerful demographic is mothers.
Mormonism is feeling guilty for not studying the scriptures every day.
Mormonism is wealthy families with five children. Their houses look like ski resorts and every child plays the piano.
Mormonism is canning peaches and grinding wheat.
Mormonism is teenagers going to church at 6 am to study the Bible before school.
Mormonism is knowing that God meant for you to be a leader.
Mormonism is BYU, where clean shaven young men still open doors for women. Many students have turned down Ivy League opportunities to study there, and half are fluent in a foreign language.
Mormonism is a 12-year-old girl speaking before hundreds of people.
Mormonism is Book of Mormon heroes, prophets who obey God no matter the cost and warriors who fight to defend their religious freedom.
Mormonism is ice cream, Jell-o, board games and trampolines.
Mormonism is a handful of men standing in a circle with one arm resting on the next man’s shoulder. Their other arms are stretched out to hold an infant between them. One of these men is the father, who offers a special prayer announcing the child’s name and pronouncing blessings upon her.
Mormonism is my family debating whether it’s wrong to watch R-rated movies or drink caffeinated soda.
Mormonism is a toddler wandering the aisles during a Sunday sacrament service.
Mormonism is a young bride and groom exiting the temple to the applause of family and friends.
Mormonism is trying to fit in without lowering my standards.
Mormonism is watching Romney’s campaign with some of my own ego on the line.
Mormonism is believing that if people understood us, Romney’s faith would be an asset, not a liability.