Americans are an enterprising people, and we start churches like we start businesses. (It is not always possible to tell the two apart.) There are more than twice as many distinct religious communities as McDonald’s restaurants in the United States, and eight times as many religious congregations as ZIP codes. The diversity of American creeds and the comity among their adherents is remarkable: The West Texas city in which I was raised was dominated by white Baptists and brown Catholics, but we had everything from staid Methodist congregations to foot-washing Primitive Baptists, holy-rolling Foursquare and Full Gospel churches, a tiny congregation of Latin-loving sedevacantists led by a discalced Franciscan (try that on a sidewalk in Texas in July), neo-Marcionite churches full of people who did not know what a Marcionite is, various expressions of the Seventh-Day Adventist tendency, even a few Mennonites out in the countryside. Everybody thought everybody else was going to perdition, though to the best of my recollection Janet Reno was the only one willing to dispatch anybody to hell from Texas over religious peculiarities.
But the Mormons are a tribe apart.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, you may be surprised to learn, the largest religious organization in the United States after the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United Methodist Church. The Baptists and the Methodists are in decline, while the number of Catholics and Mormons is growing, with Mormons adding to their numbers at 2.5 times the Roman rate of redemption. It is likely that Joseph Smith soon will have more followers in the United States than does John Wesley; already the words “Salt Lake City” carry a religious resonance no longer detectable in place names such as “Aldersgate” — or “Boston” or “Philadelphia” for that matter. (If it weren’t for E. Digby Baltzell’s Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, the religious flavor of those places would be not only gone but also forgotten.)
Mormons and Catholics are alike in that they matter. Everybody knows who the pope is, and when there’s a papal vacancy the drama of the election leads practically every newspaper in the world, and all of Europe holds its breath. Very few Americans could pick Bryant Wright out of a police lineup or tell you that he is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. What the Catholic Magisterium teaches influences public policy — and life — around the world. Mormons, likewise, have a kind of cultural electricity about them: There is no Broadway musical assembled to lampoon the beliefs of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, but The Book of Mormon keeps selling out. There are few if any websites dedicated to “unmasking” the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., but there are dozens dedicated to Mormons. The Catholic Church matters in part because it is global, and in some quarters it is still held in suspicion for that reason. The Mormons represent precisely the opposite condition: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only major worldwide religion bearing a “Made in the U.S.A.” label. Forget apple pie: With its buttoned-down aesthetic, entrepreneurial structure, bland goodwill, and polished professionalism, it is as American as IBM.
Also, it drives people crazy.
“A Mormon One-World-Theocracy Brought to You by Mitt Romney?” Apparently, Romney has a 59-point plan for that, too, if you believe the more hysterical anti-Mormons, the doyenne of whom, quoted above, is Tricia Erickson, a Mormon apostate and professional opponent of all things Latter-day Saintly. She is the author of, among other works, Can Mitt Romney Serve Two Masters? The Mormon Church Versus the Office of the Presidency of the United States of America. (She also is fond, as you can see, of rhetorical questions.) She believes that the fact of belief in the Mormon faith is in and of itself disqualifying for an aspiring president.
She is hardly alone in that belief. One in five Americans declare that they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate — even if that candidate were a member of their own party. There is no other religious group that comes close to inspiring that kind of widespread hostility in U.S. voters. Seven percent of Americans say they would not vote for a Catholic, 9 percent would oppose a Jew. Five percent would oppose a black candidate, 6 percent a female candidate. Twenty-two percent would oppose a Mormon. The only groups with higher negatives are homosexuals and atheists, and their numbers are improving. Anti-Mormon hostility has been more or less constant since Gallup added the question to its survey in 1967, an innovation occasioned by the presidential campaign of a moderate Mormon ex-governor and millionaire business executive by the name of Romney. George Romney’s candidacy was hobbled by his infelicitous use of the word “brainwashing” to describe his experience on a Department of Defense–organized tour of Vietnam (“A light rinse would have been sufficient,” quipped Eugene McCarthy) and by the New Hampshire machinations of Nelson Rockefeller, who saw to it that Romney’s 1968 campaign was over before it began. For his ineptitude, Romney pere was rewarded with the secretary’s chair at Richard Nixon’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, a career-ending appointment that prevented the country from answering in 1972 or 1976 the question that went unanswered in 1968: How big a problem is religion for a Mormon presidential candidate?