Before Jimmy Carter started talking in 1976 about being “born again,” few Americans outside of the evangelical world had any idea what the Democrat was saying. It’s hard to imagine today, but evangelical Protestantism then was a subculture of Bible churches, small study groups and parachurch organizations.
Now, evangelicals are a thriving force within our society. No subculture are they, thanks largely to Carter bringing them out of their parallel universe.
Similarly, John Kennedy brought Catholics into the mainstream. He spoke little about his faith, but he demystified it by being the first Catholic to win the presidency. No longer could whisper campaigns in places like the South automatically stop a Catholic from breaking out of their own subculture of rituals, hierarchies and orders.
You probably see where I am going with this. Mormons have a teachable moment with Mitt Romney the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. A candidate’s religion should neither qualify nor disqualify him for office, but, by all indications, Mormonism remains misunderstood.
Mormons certainly see it that way. In January, a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey found that 62 percent of Mormons think that Americans know little or nothing about Mormonism.
So here’s the chance to break down the misperceptions, which will benefit our society. Robert Putnam and David Campbell wrote in their 2010 book, “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” that understanding competing traditions is the key to keeping tensions in check in a society with such religious variety.
So far, Romney has chosen the Kennedy model. He talks little about his beliefs. Instead, by being so integrated into American life, he’s showing Mormonism is not the cult some think it is.
But this breakthrough is not just an issue for Romney to address. It matters more that Mormons in the pew, and those of us who don’t share their views, better understand each other.
In a telephone call last week, Campbell, a Mormon who teaches political science at Notre Dame University, emphasized the importance of informal relationships. Whether in neighborhoods, at work or on campus, they help break through the clutter.
I agree, but the dialogue needs to deal with serious issues. For example, Mormons see Jesus as a separate being from God the Father. How does that theological distinction square with traditional Christian theology about the Trinity?
Also, how does the Book of Mormon fit in with the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures? Is that sacred text “over and above” other sacred texts?
And what about the afterlife? What is the purpose of, say, baptizing the dead?
These are theological issues, but they are the sorts of topics that a genuine dialogue should include. And the discussion needs to involve those who have no religious faith, if Mormons are going to reach across the broader society.
Campbell pointed to research he did in the 2008 presidential campaign, when Romney also was a prominent figure. He found that those who didn’t know Mormons but were persuaded by negative charges about them often changed their minds when presented data that showed Mormons shared their values about work, family, etc.
Those who knew Mormons in passing, however, reacted differently. Campbell found they recognized something distinctive about Mormonism, but countervailing explanations about Mormons didn’t change their opinions much.
In short, they lacked a positive experience with Mormons, which is why informal conversations matter so much. They allow people to move beyond a passing impression of a particular faith.
I regret not taking advantage of a chance to get beyond my own passing impression of Mormonism while on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. I kept bumping into a delightful Mormon couple from California, who had come to watch Romney. We talked politics on several occasions, but I never knew how to strike up a conversation about their faith.
The loss was mine, but Romney’s emergence presents us all a chance to learn more about an often-misunderstood faith.
William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News.