During the Republican National Convention several weeks ago, I turned to my wife and said, "No matter who gets elected, the Mormons will win this election." The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) have made incredible strides into the mainstream of American society in the last twenty years, and the last five have been just incredible. But the Mormon church's emergence into public respectability during the RNC was amazing to watch.
I saw this coming about twenty years ago. You may remember the Mormons' TV commercials in the 1980's -- beautiful family settings, caring relationships, and a 1-800-number that, if you called, promised to send you a free copy of the Book of Mormon. About twenty years ago, suddenly these commercials changed and, instead of the Book of Mormon, they promised to send callers a free copy of the King James Version of the Bible. At that moment, I could see the strategy unfolding: the Mormon church realized that belief -- the content of faith -- was going underground, and appearances and emotional associations were what counted. They planned to step into the mainstream of American religion. What could be more mainstream than the King James Bible?
We've seen this play out in the last two decades. Four years ago Mitt Romney was marginalized from the Republican ticket mostly because of his religion. Since then we've seen a spate of "I'm a Mormon" commercials on TV, radio, and internet. They're classy, well-done commercials that clearly put Mormons in the mainstream.
During the Republican National Convention, one entire evening was devoted to a sort of Mormon religious festival complete with testimonies and touching tales of the care and devotion Pastor Mitt showered on those under his care. No one shrank back from declaring their adherence to the Mormon religion. No one toned down their personal faith.
Whether we're talking theology or sexuality, the mainstream of America has adopted a "whatever works for you" approach to truth. It's considered rude to examine someone else's truth claims and weigh them carefully. It's considered arrogant to have a standard of truth by which you evaluate events and teachings. In the public square these days, if you make the claim that you are (for example) a "biblical Christian" and immediately you're labeled a fundamentalist, a homophobe, a hater. "Tolerance" -- meaning you don't evaluate the truth-claims of others -- is the rule of the day.
I have nothing against a Mormon president. The Mormons, after all, have developed one of the most successful religious systems for promoting strong families, successful businesses, and a solid work ethic. These are all a good beginning toward being an effective leader. By all means, vote for Mitt if you like. I'm more concerned about competency in the Oval Office than I am about orthodoxy.
What strikes me in all this is as follows: American religion and American life more and more are defined not by the question, "What is true?" but rather by the question, "What has meaning for me?" Note that this question is purely individual. We do not ask, "What has meaning for us?" because we don't know how to have corporate faith, which includes some measure of accountability. We only know how to have individual belief, which can be as wacky as each of us are individually.
What the Mormons at the RNC had to do was not defend their wacky theology -- few Mormons even know what their church teaches, theologically and historically speaking -- but rather to speak of the meaning and satisfaction they've found in their religion. Historians who expose Joseph Smith as a spiritual con-man equipped with angelic spectacles and ephemeral golden tablets that disappeared after he translated them sound like vengeful, intolerant meanies. Though this does beg the question: as a leader in the Mormon church for any number of years, Mitt Romney undoubtedly knows and subscribes to the theological teachings of his church. So he probably believes that God the Father was once a human being, and that he himself can become a god by following the tenets of his faith, and that Ann's greatest satisfaction will be to bear children for him throughout eternity. He apparently believes in the magic spectacles and the golden tablets. He likely accepts the idea that the ten lost tribes of Israel migrated across Asia to the Bering Strait, spread across the Americas, and became the American Indians (including Nephi and his crew that populate the pages of the Book of Mormon.) It's a little troubling to me that a man in line for the Oval Office might subscribe to some of these ideas.
At the RNC we saw good, articulate people speaking passionately and reasonably about things like compassion and community. They gave a face to Mormonism that sways the average post-modern thinker: They seem like nice people and they have good values. They should be accepted.
So no matter whether Romney wins or loses the election, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been catapulted into a new legitimacy in the minds of most Americans. After 2012, when those Mormons knock on your door, you may be much more inclined to invite them in and listen to them with an open mind. Don't worry much about what's really true in their theology or their history, what stands up to the bright light of scrutiny -- they're very nice people. Enjoy the conversation. Invite them back. Hear them out, and eventually you'll consider joining them for church.
I predict that the already rapid growth rates of the Mormon church will increase even more in the next ten or twelve years. In terms of religion, the Mormons have already won the 2012 election.