Book Review: The Mormon Image in the American Mind

 J. B. Haws, The Mormon Image in the American Mind:  Fifty Years of Public Perception, Oxford University Press.


J. B. Haws, a Church History professor at BYU, has written an excellent book on perceptions of the LDS Church in the United States. He frames his narrative from Romney campaign (George, in 1968) to Romney campaign (Mitt, in 2012) and tackles all of the major incidents in between when Mormonism became a topic of discussion outside of the Church (BYU sports and the priesthood ban, ERA, anti-Mormonism, Prop 8, etc.).

I enjoyed reading this book, learned a lot, and recommend it, but it has a grave strategic error that nearly ruined it for me. The first tough issue that he treats is the protest around BYU sports in the 1970s. If you knew nothing about LDS history and were to read that chapter, you would leave thinking that Mormons were not racist, fully supported civil rights, and had no idea why there was a ban on blacks holding the priesthood. This treatment made me wonder if Haws was trying his own hand at shaping the image of Mormonism in the American mind, and so I lost trust in his ability to write fairly. It was only several chapters later, in the context of President Hinckley’s 1998 address to the NAACP, when he discussed the folklore surrounding the ban and I realized that he wasn’t whitewashing earlier on, but rather must have omitted this material for other reasons—reasons that are not at all clear to me. So my advice is this: stick with him. He is fair, even though it doesn’t seem that way at first.

One of Haws’ great strengths, which should be a model for LDS scholars in a wide variety of fields, is his ability to discuss controversial issues in a way that neither ignores dissent nor risks his day job. To wit, here is his description of reactions to the Church’s anti-ERA stance:

 To the church’s opponents in this debate, including dismayed pro-ERA Mormons, these statements represented the reactionary fears of an entrenched patriarchy guided by a Victorian model of domesticity rather than revealed Mormon doctrine. Some made the argument that the LDS emphasis on stay-at-home motherhood was comparatively recent and contrasted unfavorably with Mormon views of feminine capabilities in the nineteenth century. These commentators located the shift in Mormon mindset at the turn of the twentieth century, a by-product of Mormonism’s post-polygamy Americanization, which at that time meant adopting the prevailing middle-class morality. Accordingly, detractors read official praise for homemaking and full-time motherhood as a diversionary tactic to confine women to domestic prisons disguised as pedestals of honor. To believers, though, these statements emphasizing traditional roles for women went far beyond backward-looking retrenchment. They derived from a fundamental belief in the divinely-ordained, complementary natures of men and women, a belief that framed for Mormons their model of the family.

See, now, that wasn’t that hard, was it? I could nit-pick a few word choices here and there, but I felt like he handled this marvelously well.

As far as analysis, he does a great job in framing a long-running tension in the American mind between perceptions of individual Mormons (generally: good) and The Church (generally: bad). He also successfully, I think, resists the urge to paint the perception of Mormonism as being all about Mormons and not about other currents in the culture. He points out that protests against BYU sports ended not with the priesthood ban, but earlier, as Americans lost their tolerance for protest movements in the mid 1970s. He suggests that the spate of 80s evangelical anti-Mormonism had more to do with the need to find a banner around which to rally a divided evangelical community than Mormonism itself. (Although LDS missionary work and the building of two LDS temples—Atlanta and Dallas—in the Bible Belt were factors here, as he indicates.) He points out that the emphasis on Mitt Romney’s work as an LDS leader, which was featured prominently at the Republican National Convention in 2012, wasn’t about Mormonism per se but rather a clever way to counter the perception that he was an out-of-touch plutocrat.

The one real weakness in this book is his lack of treatment of feminist issues. He does, of course, discuss the ERA extensively, but not much else. Perhaps this is because there hasn’t been one big moment when LDS women’s issues flooded into national attention since the ERA debates, but it is also true that over the years there has been a slow drip of media references to those oppressed Mormon women. He could have addressed the “Mormon mommy blogger” phenomenon, which, while not garnering national headlines, has been a huge factor on the ground in terms of the perception of Mormons in general. (Pardon my feminist soapbox, but this lacuna is why the world needs female scholars: the mommy bloggers, now fueled by Pinterest, are doing more to change the interactions between the average American woman and the Mormon Church than anything, ever. Need a chicken recipe? Find a picture of a temple in the sidebar. Redoing your mudroom? You’ll see it is perfectly normal to have four kids—named McKay, Spencer, Vilate, and Lehi—and a dedicated place for scripture storage. And thus “women” and “Mormonism” enter the national consciousness not as a problem related to the priesthood, but as an aspirational lifestyle.) He might also have mentioned Elizabeth Smart.

This book is not only an interesting analysis of what Americans think about Mormons, but also a solid history of a period of Mormonism that is usually neglected. I didn’t know that President Hinckley had apologized to black leaders for the Church’s role in slavery, for example; that’s the kind of interesting detail that fills this book. Several of Haws’ observations really gave me new insight into some puzzling things. For example, BYU was praised by the LA Times in 1969 for the lack of beards on campus; do you think those kudos still play in the minds of those who maintain that much-disliked policy? In the time when BYU sports were being boycotted, many people (inaccurately) thought that BYU did not admit black students and the Church worked hard to correct this misunderstanding; do you think that history plays into the many instances where the Church seems to be answering a question that was not asked about women in the LDS Church? (Maybe that isn’t clear. Here’s what I mean: I frequently hear the media question “Why don’t LDS women hold the priesthood?” answered with “LDS women are valued and are equals.” That doesn’t answer the question! But to a veteran of the 1970s skirmishes, perhaps it seems that the interlocutor doesn’t understand the LDS position that women are equals, and so that is the question they answer.) I was also struck by how very hard the Church worked in the days of the priesthood ban to support the African-American community, doing things like helping to build or rebuild black churches. (I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if, during the Prop 8 campaign/furor, the Church had asked its members to donate $1 to a shelter for homeless gay youth for every dollar they donated to Prop 8.) But this kind of thing isn’t Haws’ concern; it is just where my mind headed as I rode along on his historical survey.   Which means that the book succeeds on its own terms, but also well beyond them.

Review copy provided by publisher.

10 comments for “Book Review: The Mormon Image in the American Mind

  1. Wilfried
    November 1, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Thanks for the review, Julie. I heard J.B. Haws speak in Brussels at a conference on Mormonism last May, where he gave one of the best presentations (actually the best). Excellent command of telling data. For example, he made a clear comparison of the rather positive Mormon image in the US in the 1960s (54% of Americans view Mormons favorably) and the plunge in image by 1991 (only 27% of Americans view Mormons favorably). He explained convincingly the factors that influenced the change. It’s certainly also in the book which I’m eager to read.

    Now the next step is a book on the Mormon image in the mind of populations abroad, including an analysis of how church PR has struggled (failed?) to counter that image.

  2. wondering
    November 1, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    Wilfried, the first of those two surveys was actually in 1977, according to this interview with Haws:

    But, I’m sorry, I simply do not believe there was such a large change in perceptions of Mormons between 1977 and 1991. I suspect much of the difference may have been in how the question was worded, how the sample was selected, or just sampling error. I could be wrong, but the fact that Haws reports these results uncritically makes me wonder if I should trust him.

  3. wondering
    November 1, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    Also, I was not as impressed as Julie by the quoted paragraph. What does he think about the claim that “the LDS emphasis on stay-at-home motherhood was comparatively recent?” He doesn’t actually deny it, or provide any evidence against it, but in attributing it only to “detractors” and “opponents” of the church he gives the Mormon reader the impression that it is not true. (Or perhaps this is covered elsewhere in the book?)

  4. November 1, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    Julie: thanks for the good review. I’ve waited for the book for a while, and think JB is one of the top young scholars in the field.

    Wondering: read the book before you come to those positions. His arguments and evidence are careful and convincing. And he does use earlier surveys not listed in the essay you linked to.

  5. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    November 1, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    It should be interesting to compare this to Givens’ Viper on the Hearth, about the Mormon image in the first century of the Church. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    I personally think the current judicial controversy over same sex marriage confirms the foresight of the Brethren in asking us to oppose the ERA. If it had become part of the Constitution, the judicial reasoning to require same sex marriage would have been trivial, something we discussed at law school at the time, though few people took seriously the idea that gays would ever want same sex marriage, and it was not a significant part of the debates at the time. Meanwhile, the lack of an ERA has not in any way prevented progress of equal legal and civil rights for women. After all, the 14th Amendment requirement for equal justice for all persons, and the inclusion of gender as a suspect category in the 1964 Civil Rights act, has been all the authority that has been needed over the last 30 years to advance legal euality for women.

  6. don
    November 2, 2013 at 6:14 am

    No offense, but I don’t think it will ever be normal to have four kids named McKay, Spencer, Vilate and Lehi.

  7. jill
    November 4, 2013 at 4:05 am

    Oh yes, there was a HUGE change in how Mormons were perceived from 1977
    to 1990. The main reason was the rise of the Moral Majority group also known as Evangelical Christians. They labeled us as non-Christians.
    They showed the film “The Godmakers” in their local churches. I was an LDS convert in 1977. I lost friends in the 1980’s due to all of this
    anti-Mormon propaganda. It made people suspicious of us and they still are today.

  8. jill
    November 4, 2013 at 4:07 am

    p.s. They also gave us the “cult” label.

  9. November 4, 2013 at 10:27 am

    Thanks for the write-up, Julie. Contemporary history is always a tricky undertaking. Many readers will have their own living memories of the events recounted, which often differ from the story the author constructs based on documents and news reports. But memory is tricky, even for relatively recent events. Mark Leone wrote a book titled The Roots of Modern Mormonism a few years back that showed how faulty Mormon memory can be in this way. I look forward to reading the Haws book.

  10. Naismith
    November 5, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    Thanks much–sounds like a great holiday gifting idea.

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