About 14 million people in the world identify as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon faith, including less than 2 percent of the U.S. population. One church member, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is vying for the Republican nomination for president amid questions and concerns about how his religion might influence his leadership. While some view Mormonism as an unusual or outsider religion, the relatively young faith is in many ways a distinctly American one, says religious historian Matthew Bowman, a visiting assistant professor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. In his new book, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, Bowman traces the church from its founding in 1830 to today. Bowman, a Mormon himself, recently spoke with U.S. News about the religion's position in American culture and its potential impact on the upcoming presidential election. Excerpts:
What inspired you to write this book?
I think the time is ripe in American culture for a book about Mormonism. I think Americans are considering again, as they have several times in the past, what the place of Mormons in American life is and if Mormons can be part of mainstream American culture or if they still have to be on the outside.
You write that scholars talk about Mormonism as a "quintessential American" religion. How so?
In a lot of ways, early Mormonism embodies the ideals of early American culture and American life. There is a priesthood hierarchy, but there is no theological training, there is no academic training. You simply step into the office and begin performing it. There is something very American about that sort of amateur enthusiasm. And also the sort of democratic sense that any man who joined the church could immediately rise to leadership in it. The early leaders of the church were farmers and carpenters and laborers who put a religion together themselves. And [Mormon founder] Joseph Smith, of course, who was an uneducated farm boy, is perhaps the best example of that—somebody who had no theological training but nonetheless produced reams of scripture on his own.
What do you see as the biggest misconception about the religion?
That it is a monolithic religion, and that Mormons all kind of believe the same thing, they all dress the same. There is a fair amount of diversity. Fewer than half the Mormons in the world live in the United States, and Spanish is very, very close to becoming the language of a plurality of Mormons today.
Over its history, how has Mormonism connected with politics?
Mormons have had kind of a fraught relationship with American politics since the beginning of the church. Joseph Smith was never very comfortable with American democracy—he was disappointed by it many times, he found himself at the losing end of a lot of electoral fights. After he died, the Mormons became something of a political football that the two parties fought over. Members of the church have moved pretty steadily to the right over the 20th century, and mostly over social issues. By the 1960s, when the culture wars began, Mormons were very, very distressed by the sexual revolution, by things like this, and have become fairly reliable Republicans in the past 40 years or so.
How big a role do you think the religion will play in this year's presidential election?
I think that the thing that matters most in this election is the economy. I think Romney's Mormonism will not sway the electorate one way or another. I think it is causing him more problems in the primary than it would in the general election. When the rubber hits the road and they're in the booth and have to pull the lever for somebody, those who would not vote for a Mormon are fairly small.
If Romney wins, might that have an effect on greater public acceptance of Mormonism?