The Most American Religion
Perpetual outsiders, Mormons spent 200 years assimilating to a certain national ideal—only to find their country in an identity crisis. What will the third century of the faith look like?
Photographs by Michael Friberg
Image above: The Oquirrh Mountain Temple sits about 20 miles south of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, where the Church is based.
This article was published online on December 16, 2020.
To meet with the prophet during a plague, certain protocols must be followed. It’s a gray spring morning in Salt Lake City, and downtown Temple Square is deserted, giving the place an eerie, postapocalyptic quality. The doors of the silver-domed tabernacle are locked; the towering neo-Gothic temple is dark. To enter the Church Administration Building, I meet a handler who escorts me through an underground parking garage; past a security checkpoint, where my temperature is taken; up a restricted elevator; and then, finally, into a large, mahogany-walled conference room. After a few minutes, a side door opens and a trim 95-year-old man in a suit greets me with a hygienic elbow bump.
“We always start our meetings with a word of prayer,” says Russell M. Nelson, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “So, if we may?”
The official occasion for our interview is the Mormon bicentennial: Two centuries ago, a purported opening of the heavens in upstate New York launched one of the most peculiar and enduring religious movements in American history, and Nelson designated 2020 as a year of commemoration. My notebook is full of reporterly questions to ask about the Church’s future, the painful tensions within the faith over race and LGBTQ issues, and the unprecedented series of changes Nelson has implemented in his brief time as prophet. But as we bow our heads, I realize that I’m also here for something else.
For the past two months, I’ve been cooped up in quarantine, watching the world melt down in biblical fashion. All the death and pestilence and doomscrolling on Twitter has left me unmoored—and from somewhere deep in my spiritual subconscious, a Mormon children’s song I grew up singing has resurfaced: Follow the prophet, don’t go astray … Follow the prophet, he knows the way.
As president of the Church, Nelson is considered by Mormons to be God’s messenger on Earth, a modern heir to Moses and Abraham. Sitting across from him now, some part of me expects a grand and ancient gesture in keeping with this calamitous moment—a raised staff, an end-times prophecy, a summoning of heavenly powers. Instead, he smiles and asks me about my kids.
Over the next hour, Nelson preaches a gospel of silver linings. When I ask him about the lockdowns that have forced churches to close, he muses that homes can be “sanctuaries of faith.” When I mention the physical ravages of the virus, he marvels at the human body’s miraculous “defense mechanisms.” Reciting a passage from the Book of Mormon—“Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy”—he offers a reminder that feels like a call to repentance: “There can be joy in the saddest of times.”
There is something classically Mormon about this aversion to wallowing. When adversity strikes, my people tend to respond with can-do aphorisms and rolled-up sleeves; with an unrelenting helpfulness that can border on caricature. (Early in the pandemic, when Nelson ordered the Church to suspend all worship services worldwide and start donating its stockpiles of food and medical equipment, he chalked it up to a desire to be “good citizens and good neighbors.”) This onslaught of earnest optimism can be grating to some. “There’s always a Mormon around when you don’t want one,” David Foster Wallace once wrote, “trying your patience with unsolicited kindness.” But it has served the faith well.
By pretty much every measure, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has defied the expectations of its early observers. In the years immediately after its founding—as Mormons were being chased across the country by state-sanctioned mobs—skeptics predicted that the movement would collapse before the century was out. Instead, it became one of the fastest-growing religions in the world. The Church now averages nearly 700 converts a day; it has temples in 66 countries and financial reserves rumored to exceed $100 billion.
In the past few years, Mormons have become a subject of fascination for their surprising resistance to Trumpism. Unlike most of the religious right, they were decidedly unenthusiastic about Donald Trump. From 2008 to 2016, the Republican vote share declined among Latter-day Saints more than any other religious group in the country. And though Trump won back some of those defectors in 2020, he continued to underperform. Joe Biden did better in Utah than any Democrat since 1964, and Mormon women likely played a role in turning Arizona blue.
Scholars have offered an array of theories to explain this phenomenon: that Mormon communities are models of connectedness and trust, that the Church’s unusual structure promotes consensus-building over culture war, that the faith’s early persecution has made its adherents less receptive to nativist appeals.
Nelson attributes these qualities to the power of the Church’s teachings. “I don’t think you can separate the good things we do from the doctrine,” he tells me. “It’s not what we do; it’s why we do it.”
As a lifelong member of the faith, I can’t help but see a more complicated story. Mormons didn’t become avatars of a Norman Rockwellian ideal by accident. We taught ourselves to play the part over a centuries-long audition for full acceptance into American life. That we finally succeeded just as the country was on the brink of an identity crisis is one of the core ironies of modern Mormonism.
The story of the Latter-day Saints begins with a confused teenage boy. It was the spring of 1820, and the town of Palmyra, New York, was in the throes of the Second Great Awakening. Fevered Christian revivals were everywhere. New sects were sprouting, and preachers competed fiercely for converts. To Joseph Smith, a 14-year-old farm boy with little education, the frenzy was at once exhilarating and disorienting. As he would later write in his personal history, he became consumed with the question of which church to join—sampling worship services, consulting scripturians, and growing ever more concerned about the state of his soul.
The turning point in his spiritual search came when he was reading the Book of James: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God … and it shall be given him.” Determined to test the thesis, he walked into a grove of trees near his family’s farm and knelt down to ask for guidance. What happened next, according to Smith, would be the catalyst for a new world religion—the literal restoration of Christ’s Church to the Earth. In his own words:
I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me … When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!
I don’t remember the first time I heard this story, but I do know where I was when I committed it to memory. As a Mormon teenager in suburban Massachusetts, I woke up every morning at 5:30 to attend a “seminary” class held in the bishop’s basement. This was no mark of special devotion on my part; all the Mormon kids were expected to be there, and so all the Mormon kids were, Mormonism being a religion that prizes showing up. Most mornings, we struggled to stay awake while our teacher read from the Bible, but on Fridays, we ate cinnamon rolls and played scripture-memorization games. Our teacher would hold up cue cards with verses scrawled across them, while we repeated the words over and over until we could recite them without looking. Smith’s canonized account of “the first vision” was the longest of the passages, but it was also the most important.
The power of his story was in its implausibility. No reasonable person would accept such an outlandish claim on its face—to believe it required faith, a willingness to follow young Joseph’s example. This was how our teacher framed the story, as much object lesson as historical event. Don’t believe in this because your parents do, we were told. Go ask God for yourself.
But the part of Smith’s account that always resonated most with me was what happened after the vision. Word got around Palmyra, and the community turned on him. His claims were declared to be “of the devil.” His family was ostracized. Facing pressure to recant, Smith refused. “I had seen a vision,” he wrote later. “I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.” In seminary, this was treated as a coda to the main event—mentioned, if at all, as an example of standing up for unpopular beliefs. But to a 21st-century teenager who was already insecure enough about his oversized head and undersized muscles without bringing a weird religion into the mix, it sounded a lot like a cautionary tale.
My own testimony didn’t come in a blaze of revelation, but in living the faith day to day. The church was where I felt most like myself. The green hymnals we sang from on Sundays, the sacramental Wonder Bread we passed down the pews, the corny youth dances in the sweaty church gym where we’d jump around to DJ Kool before closing with a prayer—these were more than just quirks of my parents’ religion. They were emblems of an identity, one I could never fully reveal to my non-Mormon friends.
At school, I laughed along when the boys in the cafeteria asked me how many moms I had, and I nodded thoughtfully when the girl I liked speculated, after the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, that she must have been an easy mark for brainwashing because she was Mormon. When the time came to apply for college, I feigned an interest in Arizona State University just so my guidance counselor wouldn’t think I was interested only in Mormon colleges.
I aimed to cultivate a reputation that sanded off the edges of my orthodoxy—he’s Mormon, but he’s cool. I didn’t drink, but I was happy to be the designated driver. I didn’t smoke pot, but I would never narc.
All this posturing could be undignified, but I took pride in my ability to walk a certain line. Unlike my co-religionists in Utah—where kids went to seminary in the middle of the day, at Church-owned buildings next to the high schools—I was one of only a few Mormon kids in my town. If my classmates liked me, I reasoned, it was a win for Mormons everywhere. In the pantheon of minority-religion neuroses, this was not wholly original stuff. But I wouldn’t realize until later just how deeply rooted the Mormon craving for approval was.
The Church that Joseph Smith set about building was almost achingly American. He held up the Constitution as a quasi-canonical work of providence. He published a new sacred text, the Book of Mormon, that centered on Jesus visiting the ancient Americas. He even taught that God had brought about the American Revolution so that his Church could be restored in a free country—thus linking Mormonism’s success to that of the American experiment. And yet, almost as soon as Smith started attracting converts, they were derided as un-American.
A charismatic figure with gleaming blue eyes and a low voice, Smith taught a profoundly optimistic theology that stood in contrast with the harsher doctrines of his day. But what made him most controversial was his commitment to establishing a “new Jerusalem” in the United States. The utopia he envisioned would be godly, ordered, and radically communitarian. As the Mormons searched for a place to build their Zion, they were met with an escalating campaign of persecution and mob violence.
In New York, Smith was arrested at the urging of local clergy. In Ohio, he was tarred and feathered. By the time the Mormons settled in Missouri, they were viewed as enemies of the state. Their economic and political power made local officials nervous, as did their abolitionist streak. (Though the Church would later adopt exclusionary policies toward Black people, many of its early members disapproved of slavery.) Residents complained that the growing Mormon community had “opened an asylum for rogues, vagabonds, and free blacks” in their backyard. Mormon leaders responded with their own incendiary rhetoric.
The tension came to a head on October 27, 1838, when the governor issued an “extermination order” demanding that all Mormons be driven out of the state or killed. A few days later, a militia descended on a Mormon settlement about 70 miles northeast of Kansas City and opened fire. Witnesses would later describe a horrific scene—women raped, bodies mutilated, children shot at close range. By the end of the massacre, 17 Mormons had been killed, and homes had been looted and burned to the ground.
The violence was justified, in part, by the portrayal of Mormons as a degenerate, nonwhite race—an idea that would spread throughout the 19th century. Medical journals defined Mormons by their “yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage” and “thick, protuberant lips.” Cartoons depicted them as “foreign reptiles” sprawled out over the U.S. Capitol. At one point, the secretary of state tried to institute a ban on Mormon immigration from Europe.
For a time, Smith and his followers retained an almost quaint trust in America’s democratic system. Even as they were forced to flee Missouri and resettle in Nauvoo, Illinois, they were convinced that the Constitution guaranteed their freedom of religion—and that if they could simply alert the nation’s leaders to what was happening, all would be made right. In 1839, Smith led a delegation to Washington, D.C., to seek redress for the Mormons’ violent expulsion from Missouri. In a meeting with President Martin Van Buren, the prophet presented a vividly detailed list of offenses committed against his people. But the president, fearing a backlash from Missourians, dismissed his appeals. “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you,” Van Buren said, according to Smith’s account.
The experience radicalized Smith. Stung by the government’s mistreatment—and under siege by a growing anti-Mormon cohort—he took on a more theocratic bent. In Nauvoo, he served simultaneously as prophet, mayor, and lieutenant general of a well-armed Mormon militia. He introduced the ancient biblical practice of polygamy to his followers, eventually marrying at least 32 women himself. He even convened a group of men to draft a replacement for the U.S. Constitution, which they believed had failed them.
Still, the Mormons’ innate Americanness made them self-conscious theocrats—constantly establishing new councils and quorums designed to disperse power and hold one another accountable. Though the Church was hierarchical, it was infused with checks and balances. Congregations were led by a rotating cast of volunteers. Decisions were presented to congregants for ratification. “All things shall be done by common consent in the Church,” read one Mormon scripture.
In 1844, Smith launched a quixotic presidential bid to draw attention to the Mormon plight. He campaigned on abolishing prisons and selling public lands to purchase the freedom of every enslaved person in the country. America, he wrote, should be a place where a person “of whatever color, clime or tongue, could rejoice when he put his foot on the sacred soil of freedom.”
The campaign wouldn’t last long. That June, Smith was arrested for ordering the destruction of an anti-Mormon printing press. While he awaited trial, a mob attacked the jail where he was being held with his brother Hyrum and murdered them both. Among his followers, the prophet’s death gave way to infighting, defections, and yet another flight from their homes—this time into the western desert beyond America’s borders.
Yet even as the Mormons fled their country, they weren’t ready to disown it. In “The Angel of the Prairies,” a short story written by a Church leader at the time, the Latter-day Saints were not victims or enemies of the American experiment, but its purest embodiment: “When they had no longer a country or government to fight for, they retired to the plains of the West, carrying with them the pure spirit of freedom.”
Like Noah’s ark before the flood, Mormonism was, to its adherents, a vehicle for the preservation of America’s highest ideals. One day, they believed, their former countrymen would turn to them for deliverance.
It’s hard to overstate just how deeply this history is woven into modern Mormon life. As little kids, we sing songs about pioneer children who “walked and walked and walked and walked”; when we get older, we read about pioneers burying their children in shallow graves on the brutal westward trek. The stories I grew up hearing in church—about Missouri and martyrdom and Martin Van Buren—were often sanitized for devotional effect. But the scars they’ve left on the Mormon psyche are real.
At its worst, this reverence for our forebears can fuel an unhealthy persecution complex—or even be used to dismiss groups that have faced much worse oppression, much more recently. In June, a Facebook page affiliated with Brigham Young University–Idaho shared a post that compared early Mormon persecution to slavery and encouraged people of color to “RISE ABOVE” racism. (The post was deleted after student outcry.) But the stories of pioneer suffering have also instilled in many American Mormons a sensitivity to the experiences of immigrants and refugees.
According to one survey, Latter-day Saints are more than twice as likely as white evangelicals to say they welcome increased immigration to the United States. When Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration, the Church, hearing an eerie historical echo, issued a blistering condemnation. Later, when Trump signed an executive order allowing cities and states to veto refugee resettlement, Utah was the first red state in the country to request more refugees.
Muhammed Shoayb Mehtar, who served as an imam in Utah for more than a decade, told me that when new people would arrive at his mosque—many of them refugees fleeing desperate circumstances—locals would show up, offering food, furniture, and jobs. In some states, Muslims worried about harassment and hate crimes. But in Utah, Mehtar said, “folks don’t have this toxic view of Oh, they are foreigners; they want to take over. They don’t have that mentality within them.”
“I think it goes back to the beginning,” says Elder M. Russell Ballard, a senior apostle in the Church. “We were really refugees.” As a direct descendant of Hyrum Smith, Ballard talks about the Church’s early history with the raw emotion of a family tragedy. “We never forget,” he told me, “that Joseph and Hyrum were gunned down in cold blood.”
Ballard told me about a trip he’d made to Greece on behalf of the Church. During a visit to a refugee camp, he witnessed a Syrian family get tossed from a dinghy into the Aegean Sea and crawl onto the beach, shivering, soaked, and hungry. As volunteers handed them towels and food, one of the children, a 9-year-old boy named Amer, tore into a package of Oreos and offered the first one to Ballard. Today, the cookie sits encased in a small cube on the apostle’s desk—a reminder, he says, to reach out to “those people running for their lives” all over the world.
When I turned 19, I put in my papers to become a missionary, and prayed to be sent abroad. I pictured myself building chapels on some far-flung island, or teaching the gospel in a mountainside hut. Like most of the teenage Mormons who sign up for missionary service, I wanted an adventure, stories to tell. The Church sent me to Texas.
I arrived in August amid a record-breaking heat wave that seemed designed to test my faith. Huffing up hills on an eight-speed bike—necktie whipping in the wind, white shirt soaked with sweat—I wondered whether the other elders muttered bad words under their breath, too. But I came to appreciate the little miseries of missionary life. The grueling schedule, the rigid curfew, the monastic abstention from movies and TV—each small sacrifice had its sanctifying effect. Religion without difficulty had always seemed pointless to me. The divine magic was in what faith demanded.
I quickly realized that my knack for playing the likable Mormon would come in handy in the Bible Belt. Likability, it turned out, was a big part of the job. With our black name tags and IBM-salesman uniforms, missionaries were walking billboards for the Church. We were trained to take rejection in stride, to cling to our good-natured wholesomeness no matter what. When a Baptist minister condemned you to hell, you smiled politely and complimented his landscaping. When somebody hurled a Big Gulp at you from a passing car, you calmly collected the cup and looked for the nearest trash can. Once, in the seedy apartment complex where I lived with another missionary, we made the mistake of leaving our laundry unattended, and returned to find it drenched in urine. Not wanting to make a scene, we shrugged and pumped more quarters into the washing machine.
We spent most of our time teaching prospective converts about the faith or offering English classes for local Spanish speakers. On slow days, we’d go door-to-door passing out pamphlets and copies of the Book of Mormon. This was not a particularly efficient method for finding future Mormons, but we looked for small victories. I skimmed an old copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People, and practiced jokes that I could deploy on strangers’ doorsteps. We took consolation in these pleasant, fruitless interactions, telling ourselves that we’d improved the Mormon brand, however slightly. “Planting seeds,” we called it.
In 2007, I was serving in the heavily Latino Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch when voters approved a city ordinance designed to punish undocumented immigrants. As missionaries, we lived fairly disconnected lives—no newspapers, no social media—so I didn’t know at the time that the crackdown had become a national scandal. But I remember the snippets of hushed conversation—la migra, miedo—that I caught at the laundromat. I remember, the Sunday after the referendum passed, the women huddled, crying, in the church foyer; the chapel half-full for the Spanish service because so many members feared crossing town lines. And I remember the branch president, a young Guatemalan dad with glasses, abandoning his usual soft-spoken style to reassure his shaken congregation. “You are children of God,” he thundered. “Never, never let them make you feel like less.” So little about their experience was truly accessible to me, but I felt a flicker of solidarity in that moment that I hoped would never be stamped out.
On a sticky summer evening in Brooklyn, the Bushwick Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints threw a karaoke night. The congregation was small but eclectic, and as members took turns at the microphone, the wonderful weirdness of the Mormon community was on full display. A missionary from Hong Kong crooned a pop ballad in Cantonese. A petite goth fashion designer headbanged to Metallica. While young dads scurried around filling plastic cups with Sprite and replenishing the pretzel bowl, older members from Guyana and the Philippines sang their favorite songs.
Mormonism has a reputation for conformity—starched white shirts and white picket fences and broods of well-behaved white children. But in much of the world, Mormon congregations are characterized by the way they force together motley groups of people from different backgrounds. Unlike most American Christians, Latter-day Saints don’t get to choose whom they go to church with. They’re assigned to congregations based on geographic boundaries that are often gerrymandered to promote socioeconomic diversity. And because the Church is run almost entirely by volunteers, and every member is given a job, they have to work together closely. Patrick Mason, a historian of religion, calls this “the sociological genius of Mormonism”—in a society of echo chambers and bowling alone, he says, the Church has doubled down on an old-fashioned communitarianism.
In some ways, the Bushwick congregation, where my wife and I landed after moving to New York, was unusual. It was more diverse than a typical Mormon ward, and more bootstrapped. We met in a retrofitted space leased from a Jewish community center across the street from a public-housing complex. When our Sunday-morning services were interrupted by a subwoofered SUV parked outside, our branch president—a bearded filmmaker with a conciliatory approach to neighborhood relations—would slip outside and offer the driver a twenty to take the music down the block.
We took turns teaching Sunday school and delivering sermons. When one of us lost a job, somebody would stop by with a carload of groceries. When one of us had to change apartments, we’d all show up with cardboard boxes and doughnuts.
At work, I was surrounded by 20-something journalists with similarly curated Twitter feeds. But at church, my most meaningful relationships were with people who resided well outside my bubble—middle-aged mail carriers and Caribbean immigrants; white-haired retirees and single parents navigating the city’s morass of social services. Our little community wasn’t perfect. We argued and irritated one another, and more than once a heated Sunday-school debate ended in shouting and hurt feelings. But the dynamic was better than utopian—it was hard. Over time, we learned to live a portion of our lives together, to “mourn with those that mourn,” as the Book of Mormon teaches, “and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.”
Spencer Cox, who was elected governor of Utah in November, told me that his state has been shaped by this ethic. When the Mormon pioneers first arrived in the territory in 1847, they built their homes in village centers and established their crops on the outskirts of town so that farmers weren’t isolated from one another. “This was not a place that people were really excited to settle—it was kind of a wasteland,” Cox said. “To scratch it out here, to make it work, you really had to rely on each other.”
Though Utah is very conservative, its residents generally don’t romanticize rugged individualism or Darwinian hyper-capitalism. It has the lowest income inequality in the country, and ranks near the top for upward mobility. The relative lack of racial diversity no doubt helps skew these metrics—structural racism doesn’t take the same toll in a state that is 78 percent white. But economists say the tightly networked faith communities have provided a crucial extra layer to the social safety net.
To Mormons, this mindset has always been a matter of theology. Joseph Smith taught that salvation was achieved through community, not individual action alone. And his expansive view of the afterlife—as a kind of sprawling, joyous web of interconnected family reunions—prioritized human relationships. “I would rather go to hell with my friends,” he was said to have preached, “than to heaven alone.”
In 1863, a writer for The Atlantic named Fitz-Hugh Ludlow traveled to the Mormon settlement in Utah, and was surprised by what he found. In his 11,000-word dispatch, Ludlow presented the strange desert civilization of exiles as a study in contradictions. The Mormons were clearly theocratic, yet he found no evidence of corruption. Their open embrace of polygamy was scandalous, yet somehow appeared more practical than lascivious. Their beliefs were preposterous, but sincere.
The Mormons Ludlow encountered seemed to believe they had something to offer their former nation, now riven by the Civil War. When he talked to Brigham Young—Joseph Smith’s bearded, burly successor—the prophet predicted doom for the Union, and a flood of immigrants to Utah. After the war, Americans would be drawn to Mormons’ comity and the genius of polygamy, whose appeal would be obvious after so many men died fighting. “When your country has become a desolation,” Young told the writer, “we, the saints whom you cast out, will forget all your sins against us, and give you a home.”
Ludlow played the quote for laughs—a sign of the absurd grandiosity of a people who comprised, in his estimation, “the least cultivated grades of human society, a heterogeneous peasant-horde.” He predicted that the Church would “fall to pieces at once, irreparably,” as soon as Young died. But until then, the Mormon threat was not to be taken lightly. Mormonism was, he wrote, “disloyal to the core”—just like the Confederates: “The Mormon enemies of our American Idea should be plainly understood as far more dangerous antagonists than hypocrites or idiots can ever hope to be.”
Ludlow’s story, published in the April 1864 issue, was emblematic of how the rest of the country viewed Utah. Just a few years earlier, President James Buchanan had sent U.S. forces to the territory to put down a rumored Mormon rebellion. The Republican Party, in its founding platform, placed polygamy alongside slavery as one of the “twin relics of barbarism.”
Yet Mormons still longed for full initiation into American life. By the end of the 19th century, they had embarked in earnest on a quest for assimilation, defining themselves in opposition to their damaging caricatures. If America thought they were non-Christian heretics, they would commission an 11-foot statue of Jesus and place it in Temple Square. If America thought they were disloyal, they would flood the ranks of the military and intelligence agencies. (At one point, Brigham Young University was the third-largest source of Army officers in the country.) To shake the stench of polygamy—which the Church renounced in 1890—they became models of the large nuclear family.
By the middle of the 20th century, Mormon prophets were appearing on the cover of Time and Hollywood had made a hagiographic movie about Young. Mormons were Boy Scouts and business leaders, homemakers and family men. They developed a reputation for volunteerism, priding themselves on being the first on the ground after a natural disaster. Some of these transformations were more conscious than others, says Matthew Bowman, a historian at Claremont Graduate University. “But desire for respectability,” he adds, “is very much at the heart of modern Mormonism.”
The assimilation efforts had a darker side as well. Having been cast as a nefarious race, Mormon leaders became determined to reclaim their whiteness. Beginning with Young, and continuing until 1978, Black men were barred from holding the priesthood—a privilege extended to virtually every Mormon male—and Black families were unable to participate in important temple ordinances. Church leaders preached that black skin was a “curse” from God and discouraged marriage between Black and white people. Rather than opposing America’s racial hierarchy, they attempted to secure their place at the top of it, says the scholar Janan Graham-Russell: “There was almost this ultra-pure whiteness that Mormons were striving for.” The Church has been haunted by the consequences ever since.
In January 2012, I got a job covering Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. America was in the midst of what headline writers were calling “The Mormon Moment,” as Romney’s candidacy had occasioned a surge of interest in the country’s most enduring homegrown religion. It should have been a major milestone in the faith’s American journey. But something was amiss in the Mormon assimilation project.
Romney was a clear product of his Church. Born into the faith, he’d served as a missionary in France, graduated from BYU, and raised five strapping sons with his high-school sweetheart. When his political star first began to rise, Romney tried to deflect questions about his religion by arguing that Mormonism was “as American as motherhood and apple pie.” When he was asked, in an early interview with this magazine, “How Mormon are you?,” he responded: “My faith believes in family, believes in Jesus Christ. It believes in serving one’s neighbor and one’s community. It believes in military service. It believes in patriotism; it actually believes this nation had an inspired founding. It is in some respects a quintessentially American faith.”
Many Americans weren’t so sure. In the Republican primaries, Romney encountered skepticism from conservative evangelicals such as the megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, who declared Mormonism a “cult” from the “pit of hell.” On MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell sneered that Romney’s Church had been founded by a guy who “got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it.” In Slate, Jacob Weisberg argued that no one who believed in “such a transparent and recent fraud” as Mormonism could be trusted with the presidency.
Meanwhile, Romney’s all-American persona—cultivated by generations of assimilators—proved to be a political liability. With his Mormon-dad diction (all those hecks and holy cows and goshdarnits) and his penchant for reciting “America the Beautiful” on the stump (“I love the patriotic hymns”), Romney seemed like a relic—a “latter-day Beaver Cleaver,” as one Boston Globe writer put it. To those familiar with Mormon history, the irony was notable. “It is now because Mormons occupy what used to be the center that they fall into contempt,” wrote Terryl Givens, a Latter-day Saint scholar.
As the only Mormon reporter in the Romney-campaign press corps, I was in a unique position to watch him squirm as he confronted these issues—and I often made it harder for him. I wrote about the candidate’s faith constantly, much to the consternation of his consultants, who had made a strategic decision to ignore the religion issue altogether. Often when I asked the campaign for comment on a Mormon-related story, I was told, curtly, to “ask the Church.” (The Church’s spokespeople—determined to project political neutrality—usually directed me back to the campaign.)
When I went on TV to discuss the race, I’d talk about how Romney should open up about his religious life. But as the election wore on, I began to understand his reluctance. I didn’t buy the idea that his religion should be off-limits. But I also couldn’t believe some of the things my otherwise enlightened peers were willing to say about a faith they knew so little about.
I heard reporters crack jokes about “Mormon underwear,” and I fielded snickering questions on TV about obscure teachings from early prophets. One day, the CEO of the company where I worked gathered the staff for a presentation in which he explained internet virality by comparing Judaism with Mormonism. He’d given versions of the talk before. The idea was that Jews might have the “higher quality” religion, but Mormonism was growing faster because its members—slick marketers that we were—knew how to “spread it.” To make his point, he flipped through a series of slides featuring various famous Jews before comically declaring that the most famous Mormon was Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of the Killers. Once again, I felt that familiar tug—to smile politely, to laugh agreeably. I faked a phone call so that no one would see my face turn red.
I often wondered if Romney shared my ambivalence about “The Mormon Moment”—if he ever struggled with the ways in which his candidacy shaped perceptions of his Church. When I asked him about this recently, he pushed back on the premise. “I didn’t see my role as a political candidate to proselyte, or educate, even, about my religion,” he told me. “I wanted to make it clear that I was not a spokesman for my Church.” Fair enough. But he must have also known that was hopeless.
As Romney was trying to become the first Mormon president, The Book of Mormon musical was selling out on Broadway. Co-written by South Park’s creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the show skewered Mormonism with gleeful profanity and depicted its adherents as simpletons. My initial reaction, after listening to the soundtrack, was exasperation that this was how affluent theatergoers were being introduced to my faith. But I also felt compelled to be a good sport—and I wasn’t alone. When Romney was asked about the show, he said he’d love to see it: “It’s a Tony-award winner, big phenomenon!” And the Church itself took out ads in the playbill that read, “You’ve seen the play. Now read the book.” (The show’s creators had apparently anticipated something like this: Stone would later recount that when friends asked if he was concerned about Mormons protesting, he said, “Trust us, they’re going to be cool.”)
I remember being delighted by the Church’s response. Such savvy PR! Such a good-natured gesture! See, everyone? We can take a joke! But then I met a theater critic in New York who had recently seen the musical. He marveled at how the show got away with being so ruthless toward a minority religion without any meaningful backlash. I tried to cast this as a testament to Mormon niceness. But the critic was unconvinced. “No,” he replied. “It’s because your people have absolutely no cultural cachet.”
Somehow, it wasn’t until that moment that I understood the source of all our inexhaustible niceness. It was a coping mechanism, born of a pulsing, sweaty desperation to be liked that I suddenly found humiliating.
What happens when a religious group discovers that it’s spent 200 years assimilating to an America that no longer exists? As their native country fractures and turns on itself, Mormons are being forced to grapple with questions about who they are and what they believe. And a loose but growing liberal coalition inside the Church is pushing for reform.
One major source of tension is race. Since lifting its ban on Black priesthood-holders in 1978, the Church has made fitful efforts to reckon with its history. In 2013, it formally disavowed its past racist teachings. In 2018, it announced a partnership with the NAACP, an organization that had once led a march through the streets of Salt Lake City to protest the Church’s discrimination. And in the spring of 2020, President Nelson responded to the killing of George Floyd by decrying the “blatant disregard for human life” and calling on racists to “repent.” Amos Brown, the president of the San Francisco branch of the NAACP, told me his experience with Church leaders has left him convinced that they are making a genuine effort: “They were transparent enough and humble enough to say, ‘Hey, the Church may have a checkered past, but we want to work with you now.’ ”
Still, for many Black members, the progress has been painfully slow. When Tamu Smith saw Nelson’s statement—which also included a condemnation of looting and property destruction—she felt something familiar. “I see the effort, and I can appreciate the effort, but I still thirst,” she told me. “I want more.” Smith, who grew up in California and joined the Church when she was 11, now lives in Provo, Utah, where she often hears white Mormons try to rationalize the Church’s past racism. And while she’s seen hopeful signs of progress, she believes the Church can’t truly move forward without a show of complete institutional repentance: “As part of a living Church, I believe that an apology is necessary.”
So far, the Church has ignored such calls, a fact that Smith attributes to fear. Though the Church has never claimed prophetic infallibility, Smith says that for many orthodox believers, the faith is “either true or it’s not—the Church can’t make a mistake; the Church can’t back off; the Church can’t fix something that’s problematic.” Mormon leaders are afraid that if they apologize for the racism of past prophets, she speculates, they will undermine their own authority.
That institutional fear is a common theme in the Church’s response to a certain kind of activism. Though Mormons are encouraged to air their doubts and even voice dissent among themselves, Church leaders have sometimes lashed out when dissenters start attracting external allies. This dynamic is perhaps best exemplified by the ongoing debate about the role of women in the faith. In 2000, the Church excommunicated the feminist scholar Margaret Toscano, who had challenged Mormon teachings on male authority and the priesthood. What drew the Church’s censure wasn’t really the substance of her critiques, but her success in attracting media attention.
Kristine Haglund, a feminist and former editor of the liberal Mormon journal Dialogue, says it doesn’t help that intrafaith debates are so often misunderstood by outsiders. For example, coverage of Mormon gender issues often focuses on the fight for female ordination. But a 2011 Pew survey found that only 8 percent of women in the Church supported the idea. “One of the reasons I think Mormon feminist activism is so tricky is that the things that are important to women’s experience in the Church are … hard to explain and impossible to turn into a slogan,” Haglund told me. As an example, she cited calls for the Relief Society, which is led by women, to operate autonomously at the local ward level, instead of reporting to a male bishop. “ ‘Ordain women’ makes sense to outsiders,” she said, “but it doesn’t resonate within Mormonism the way it does with non-Mormon feminist allies.”
In recent years, perhaps no issue has provoked more debate within the Church than its treatment of LGBTQ people. For decades, the Church was an uneasy partner in the religious right’s crusade against same-sex marriage—united in a shared orthodoxy, but also keenly aware that many in the coalition privately derided Mormons as heretics and cultists. This effort culminated in 2008, when the Church helped wage a high-profile—and successful—campaign to ban same-sex marriage in California.
The short-lived political victory was followed by an intense backlash, and in recent years the Church has taken a more conciliatory approach. It launched a website dedicated to promoting “kindness and respect” for gay Mormons and endorsed a bill in Utah that expanded housing and employment protections for LGBTQ people. The Church affirmed that homosexuality was not a choice, and one former Church official, a psychologist, publicly apologized for his promotion of conversion therapy.
Still, the Church has not changed its prohibition on same-sex relationships and gender transitions. Nathan Kitchen, the head of the Mormon LGBTQ group Affirmation, calls this “the rainbow stained-glass ceiling” in the Church. A formerly devout Mormon who came out as gay in 2013 and divorced his wife, Kitchen says that he stopped going to church not because he stopped believing, but because he felt forced to choose between his sexuality and his faith. For those of us who have seen people we care about wrestle with the same agonizing choice, Kitchen’s story hits home. But although views among rank-and-file Mormons are evolving, the Church has codified its teachings on sexuality as doctrinal. That means they won’t change until the prophet says he’s received divine permission.
On a nightstand next to his bed, Russell Nelson keeps a notebook where he records his revelations. Before he entered Church leadership, he was a cardiothoracic surgeon who helped design the first heart-lung machine. During his early years as a doctor, he would often receive late-night phone calls from the hospital beckoning him to perform emergency operations. “I don’t get those phone calls anymore,” he told me. “But very frequently, I’m awakened with directions to follow.” Lately, the notebook has been filling up quickly.
The Mormon claim to prophetic revelation is one of the faith’s most audacious doctrines, and also its most practical. A kind of theological survival mechanism, it allows the Church to adapt and reform as necessary while giving changes the weight of providence. When Nelson ascended to the presidency of the Church, in 2018, few members expected the then-93-year-old to be a transformational leader. But his tenure has been an eventful one.
Some of Nelson’s reforms have been small, inside-baseball measures, such as shortening the length of church services and expanding the approved wardrobe for missionaries. (Coming soon to a doorstep near you: elders without neckties.) He’s also launched a campaign against the term Mormon, arguing that the nickname deemphasizes the Church’s Christianity. (I chose to use the term in this story for clarity’s sake, and also because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints presented a multisyllabic writerly dilemma that my own God-given talents left me powerless to solve.)
Other reforms have been more significant. He reversed a policy that restricted baptisms for children of same-sex couples, adjusted temple ordinances in ways that emphasize women’s authority, and appointed the first-ever Asian American and Latin American apostles to the Church’s second-highest governing body.
But while some of these changes have been celebrated as signs of progress, Nelson has not budged on key issues. When I asked him what he’d say to LGBTQ people who feel that the Church doesn’t want them, he told me, “God loves all his children, just like you and I do,” and “There’s a place for all who choose to belong to his Church.” But when I asked whether the prohibition on same-sex relationships might someday be lifted, he demurred. “As apostles of the Lord, we cannot change God’s law,” he said. “We teach his laws. He gave them many thousands of years ago, and I don’t expect he’ll change them now.”
As we spoke, I noticed that Nelson kept glancing down at an open binder on the table. It’s easy to forget that he’s almost 100 when you’re with him. He’s remarkably spry for a nonagenarian, and prone to enthusiastic tangents about the human body’s “servoregulatory mechanisms.” But he also seems to understand the risk of saying the wrong thing. So when he talks about the LGBTQ community, he slows down and reads from his notes to make sure he’s hitting every letter in the acronym.
I thought, in that moment, about the difficulty of Nelson’s job—about trying to steer a 200-year-old institution in a world that refuses to sit still. Mormons like to say that while the Church’s policies and programs may change, the core of the gospel is eternal. But identifying that core can be hard. What do you keep, and what do you jettison? Which parts are of God, and which parts came from men? What’s worth preserving in the endangered Americanism that Latter-day Saints have come to embody, and what’s best left behind? These are the questions that Nelson faces as he tries to figure out what Mormonism should mean in the 21st century. And he knows he’s running out of time to answer them.
As we neared the end of our conversation, the prophet closed his binder and became quiet. “Judgment Day is coming for me pretty soon,” he said. It was a strange sort of confession—both startling and obvious, at least from an actuarial standpoint—and I didn’t know how to respond. After another pause, Nelson began to contemplate what he would have to answer for in his imminent “interview” with God. “I doubt if I’ll be judged by the number of operations I did, or the number of scientific publications I had,” he told me. “I doubt if I’ll even be judged by the growth of the Church during my presidency. I don’t think it’ll be a quantitative experience. I think he’ll want to know: What about your faith? What about virtue? What about your knowledge? Were you temperate? Were you kind to people? Did you have charity, humility?”
In the end, Nelson told me, “we exist to make life better for people.” As mission statements go, a Church could do worse. But Mormonism has always harbored grander ambitions.
There is a story about Joseph Smith that has circulated among Mormons for generations. In 1843, a year before his death, he was meeting with a group of Church elders in Nauvoo when he began to prophesy. The day would come, Smith predicted, when the United States would be on the brink of collapse—its Constitution “hanging by a thread”—only to be saved by a “white horse” from God’s true Church.
Historians and Church leaders have long dismissed the story as apocryphal, and today the white-horse prophecy exists primarily as a winking in-joke among Latter-day Saints whenever a member of the Church runs for office. But the notion has lingered for a reason. It appeals to the Mormons’ faith in America—and to their conviction that they have a role to play in its preservation.
That conviction is part of why conservative Mormons were among the GOP voters most resistant to Trump’s rise in 2016. He finished dead last in Utah’s Republican primary, and consistently underperformed in Mormon-heavy districts across the Mountain West. When the Access Hollywood tape leaked, the Church-owned Deseret News called on Trump to drop out. On Election Day, he received just over half of the Mormon vote, whereas other recent Republican nominees had gotten closer to 80 percent.
Trump did better in 2020, owing partly to the lack of a conservative third-party candidate like Evan McMullin. (Full postelection data weren’t available as of this writing.) But the Trump era has left many Mormons—once the most reliable Republican voters in the country—feeling politically homeless. They’ve begun to identify as moderate in growing numbers, and the polling analyst Nate Silver has predicted that Utah could soon become a swing state. In June, a survey found that just 22 percent of BYU students and recent alumni were planning to vote for Trump.
Robert P. Jones, the head of the Public Religion Research Institute, says this Mormon ambivalence is notable when compared with white evangelicals’ loyalty to Trump. “History and culture matter a lot,” Jones told me. “Partisanship today is such a strong gravitational pull. I think what we’re seeing with Mormons is that there’s something else pulling on them too.”
When I talk with my fellow Mormons about what our faith’s third century might look like, one common fear is that the Church, desperate for allies, will end up following the religious right into endless culture war. That would indeed be grim. But just as worrisome to me—and perhaps more likely—is the prospect of a fully diluted Mormonism.
Taken too far, the Latter-day Saint longing for mainstream approval could turn the Church into just another mainline sect—drained of vitality, devoid of tension, not making any real demands of its members. It’s not hard to imagine a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that is “respectable” in the way of the Rotary Club, because it’s bland, and benign, and easy to ignore. Kathleen Flake, a Mormon historian at the University of Virginia, told me many of the Church’s concessions to modernity have been healthy and necessary. “But it’s like a game of strip poker,” she said. “How far will you go?”
The hard parts of Mormonism—huffing up hills in a white shirt and tie, forgoing coffee, paying tithes—might complicate the sales pitch. But they can also inspire acts of courage. After Romney voted to remove Trump from office—standing alone among Republican senators—he told me his life in the Church had steeled him for this lonely political moment, in which neither the right nor the left is ever happy with him for long. “One of the advantages of growing up in my faith outside of Utah is that you are different in ways that are important to you,” he said. In high school, he was the only Mormon on campus; during his stint at Stanford, he would go to bars with his friends and drink soda. Small moments like those pile up over a lifetime, he told me, so that when a true test of conscience arrives, “you’re not in a position where you don’t know how to stand for something that’s hard.”
In Mormon circles, Romney’s impeachment vote was fodder for another round of “white horse” jokes. But the reality, of course, is that America will never be “saved” by a single person, or even a single group. What holds the country together is its conviction in certain ideals—community, democracy, mutual sacrifice—that it once possessed, and now urgently needs to reclaim. If Mormonism has anything to offer that effort, it will have to come from a confident Church, one that is unafraid of owning up to its mistakes and embracing what makes it distinct.
This article appears in the January/February 2021 print edition with the headline “The Most American Religion.”