The Mormonizing of America

How the Mormon Religion Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture


By Stephen Mansfield

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Stephen Mansfield, the acclaimed New York Times best-selling author, has highlighted the growing popularity of Mormonism-a belief system with cultic roots-and the implications of its critical rise. Mormons are moving into the spotlight in pop culture, politics, sports, and entertainment via presidential candidates like Romney and Huntsman, media personality Glenn Beck, mega-bestselling Twilight author Stephanie Meyer, and The Book of Mormon, the hottest show on Broadway. Mormonism was once a renegade cult at war with the U.S. Army in the 1800s, but it has now emerged as not only the fastest-growing religion, but as a high-impact mainstream cultural influence.



I was five minutes into Dr. Grant Underwood’s class at Brigham Young University when I made my strategic mistake. Grant had graciously invited me to participate in his Mormonism in the American Experience class and I had eagerly accepted. Once I arrived, he urged me to introduce myself to the students. That’s when I nearly fell into the pond. I talked about my life for a while and then explained how my fascination with faith had brought me to them. Feeling the moment, I wanted to say something about how welcoming everyone had been, not just at BYU but at headquarters in Salt Lake City and everywhere I had spoken with LDS scholars, politicians, or believers around the country. That’s when I used one of my favorite throwaway lines: “Will you adopt me?”

I say it all the time. If someone bakes something wonderful and offers me a bite, I’ll say, “Oh, how nice. Will you adopt me?” If a friend builds a house with a beautiful view and a pool, I’ll almost automatically ask, “Will you adopt me so I can live here?” So the words fell thoughtlessly from my lips—in that class at Brigham Young University . . . in front of supercharged young Latter-day Saints. There, you know, just south of Salt Lake City and the Temple and all.

The bright kid in the class—which is all of them, of course, but by bright I mean smart aleck—didn’t miss a beat. He cleared his throat and said, “Well, of course, we will. Would you like for us to call the missionaries?”

And the whole class cracked up. They had me. Of course they would adopt me. That’s what they’re on earth to do. Family. Eternity. Belonging. Connection. Progressing together. Grant gave me a look that said, Wow, you walked right into that one. And you have a doctorate? Must be in basket weaving or volleyball or something.

It was the type of warm, human moment in which far more is radiated than anyone tries to describe. I loved it. It was sweet and endearing, and I saw in that instant a bit of the enveloping community that has enabled the Latter-day Saints to do what few religions have in the tumultuous modern world: allow people to belong before they believe.

I found this same openness and—what is it? Kindness? Or some mystical gift for connection?—as I plied Dr. Kathleen Flake of Vanderbilt University with what were probably insulting questions at a Nashville Starbucks. Onlookers must have wondered at our loud, fun, passionate interchanges about cults and speaking in tongues and how much “my kind” gets wrong about “her kind.” She was amazing and I am grateful.

Equally impressive and gracious were the many learned souls who gave the gift of their time during my journeys through Utah. Historian Glen Leonard of the Latter Day Saints Church History Museum and the Mormon History Association spent unhurried hours with me and only then explained he would have to leave me because he had to get back to settling his mother’s estate. He had interrupted his sad duty just to guide me. I was deeply moved. Michael Otterson, chief executive of LDS Public Relations, offered fascinating perspective not only about the challenges of managing the official face of Mormonism today but also about his life as a British convert to the Church. Dr. Paul Reeve of the University of Utah patiently answered my questions and only then brought up his offense with something I had written. He might well have refused to meet with me at all. He didn’t, and this is testament to his character and grace. Dr. Boyd Peterson of Utah Valley University’s Mormon Studies program won me with his engaging laughter and eager mind. Our hours together were a delight. April Williamsen of the spectacular LDS Church History Library also captured me with her pleasant manner, thorough knowledge of her field, and the hilarious cast of characters she introduced me to in the historical preservation department.

My conversations with LDS outliers stirred me beyond anything I could have expected. I laughed and learned with Mary Ellen Robertson, Dan Wotherspoon, and Stephen Carter of Sunstone magazine. Rocky Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City, reshaped my understanding of his city and his former faith and did so with such gentleness and insight that I did not fully realize what had happened until days later. Never will I forget my hours with the Mormon “fundamentalists,” normally a code word for polygamists. Anne Wilde opened her home and her story to me, allowing me to tour a world foreign to any I have known. Other polygamists who prefer not to be mentioned here nevertheless know of my gratitude. I was so captured by their struggles that I found myself defending them to state official friends one evening. While I was mid-rant, one of them looked at me in mock horror and said, “Oh no, you’ve joined them! Does your wife know she has a sister wife somewhere out here just north of Provo?”

Scholars and thinkers around the country spoke with me patiently and helped me understand. Jan Shipps, the leading non-Mormon scholar of Mormonism, was fierce in manning her positions and I saw what it means to love a field of study with your life. David Campbell of Notre Dame via Harvard and BYU was tremendously insightful, as was my friend Mitch Horowitz, whose book on the occult in America is essential. The brilliant and much maligned D. Michael Quinn taught me well, though I confess to being distracted by the echo of his sufferings in his voice. Tricia Erickson helped me feel the ex-Mormons’ fire. It has not left me.

Those who work with me know that I am notoriously bored with literary mysteries. It is the brooding jock side of my personality beating my inner, bespectacled scholar into submission. The study of LDS history involves a number of these did-Shakespeare-write-Shakespeare-type debates, so I was grateful for a number of patient guides. Arthur Vanick of Spalding Research Associates skillfully helped me understand his life’s work, and the kind souls at The Neal Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University steered me even to resources they wished I would not read. I am thankful and, well, impressed.

In the category of scholars and thinkers, I must again mention the amazing students at Brigham Young University. When I think back on this project, whatever else happens, I will always recall the eager faces on that campus. They are the LDS’s new generation, and I think they have a sense they are bridging from what has been to some new, more fruitful arrangement with non-Mormon culture. They narrated their world with the easygoing manner of an experienced tour guide acquainted with myth and ignorance.

During one of my days at BYU, I mindlessly ordered a Diet Coke in the faculty dining room. The student/waitress looked at me with a comforting smile and said, “Now, our Diet Coke, you know, it doesn’t have any caffeine.” “That’s fine,” I said with a shrug. “I just didn’t want you to be disappointed,” she assured. Now, she could have let that go, because no one knows with certainty whether they are drinking caffeine free when it comes to soft drinks, but she felt she had to take a stand for full disclosure. It was charming.

The same happened when I wandered through BYU’s bookstore. Right in the middle of that book lover’s paradise is a candy store as large as any you’ll see at the mall or a major theme park. I turned to the student escorting me and said, “My goodness. What’s the deal with this?” I mean, there were great mountains of bagged candy of the kind you get at the grocery store but then there were bins of freshly made praline this and walnut that, crème-filled somethings next to cherry-centered something else. I’m sure no other university has anything like it.

My student shadow said, “You’ve got to understand. We don’t snort cocaine. We don’t smoke. We don’t drink alcohol. We don’t even drink caffeine.”

“Yeah?” I said expectantly.

“Well, M&Ms are our drug of choice!” he said happily. It was clearly a line he had used before, but he broke into such self-satisfied laughter that I had to join him. And there we stood, a member of the Mormon priesthood and a decidedly non-Mormon guest, laughing about what would have been painful to discuss not too many years ago. It is the gift of the new generation, and it taught me more than all the statistics and growth projections stuffed into my notes.

No one had me laughing, though, like Glenn Beck. He is an odd blend of patriot and introvert, activist and morose monk. The English essayist William Hazlitt once wrote that “man is the only animal that laughs and weeps: for he is the only animal that is struck by the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.” This is the disparity that enflames Beck’s soul, the chasm from which his humor springs. It was a privilege to learn from him and an honor to hear him tearfully talk about his faith.

My ever-vigilant assistant, Emily Mulloy Prather, dug for treasure and scheduled interviews with skill while her home was racked with severe sickness not once but twice. She bore my unending demands with the patience of an angel and unearthed riches I could not have imagined. I found myself muttering gratitude for her Vanderbilt MBA, for her tenacious nature, and for the day she walked through our door those years ago.

It was pleasant to involve my college roommate, David Toberty, in this project. He advised me on a number of matters and, as usual, impressed me. Ten minutes into one of our conversations I saw again why he is a successful Los Angeles attorney. His keen mind, pleasant manner, and teacher’s gift have been finely honed. I realize how far we have both come since we first shared dreams over midnight pizza those many years ago. His friendship honors me.

Jennifer Cooke sat with me at BrickTop’s in Nashville and told me of her life on the edge of the Latter-day Saints. She had me laughing at her plans to marry Donny Osmond, marveling at the sweetness of her high school LDS friendships, yet grieving with her over the agonizing distance from those friends she endures today. Her memories touched me deeply, as did her love for those with whom she intensely disagrees.

As always, Chartwell Literary Group proved invaluable. Their skill with a manuscript, managing everything from photo rights to the editing process, and their ability to finesse an author in the direction he ought to go has again made Chartwell the literary ally I most need. I’m grateful beyond words.

It is now conventional wisdom that publishers roam their halls mumbling, “The only good author is a dead author” and authors sit at their desks thinking publishers have been sent to rid the earth of fine literature. This has not been my sentiment as I have worked with Worthy Publishing. I initially took my enjoyment of each of the Worthy staff as evidence of a likely curse. If I like them, I thought, it cannot go well. It has. I’m grateful for the professional relationship and for the investment of their care and skill.

There was a playlist for the writing of this album and it included “Cult of Personality” by Living Color, “Carry on Wayward Son” by Kansas, “All Things Shall Pass” by George Harrison, “Gimme Shelter” by Ashley Cleveland via the Rolling Stones, and any reel by the Tannahill Weavers just to blow the soot out of my mind. When one of my best friends died the week before this book was done, Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High on That Mountain” drew out the grief.

In writing as in every other arena of life, my wife, Beverly, is more than muse, more than paraclete and guide. She transforms all I do with her wise, lovingly impatient, sometimes rowdy ways. When I think of her, and feel again the tender privilege of having her in my life, that line from Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”—“And I need you more than want you. And I want you for all time”—comes to mind. My Mormon friends urged me to join with Bev for eternity. They were trying to help. “That is in God’s hands,” I said, thanking them. “Just to be in time with her is more than I deserve.”

On Saintly Language

Like most religions, particularly religions with painful histories of persecution, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is picky about what people call them. They prefer “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” This, of course, becomes wearisome when it appears as often as it must in a full-length book about, you know, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This paragraph proves the point.

The solution seems to be the initials “LDS”—which stand, of course, for “Latter-day Saints.” Nearly everyone in Salt Lake City uses this shorthand. “Are you LDS?” two people might ask each other. “He’s the LDS lawyer” is another popular usage. There is even much love—and gratitude—for the phrase “LDS Church,” and the faithful will use this phrase with satisfaction as well.

What apparently causes heartache is the phrase “Mormon Church.” The word “Mormon” is considered a nickname for the faith and not a happy one for some reason. Members of the LDS will use the word “Mormon” but will never say “Mormon Church.” You can say “Mormon Tabernacle Choir” and the “Book of Mormon” (the book, not the play), but you should not say “Mormon Church” because it is too informal and can signal that the LDS Church is built on a man who lived centuries ago. It isn’t.

The other issue is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints always capitalizes the word “Church” when referring to itself. In Salt Lake City, where most everyone you meet is LDS, it is standard when speaking to just say “the Church” to refer to everything Mormon—“the Church’s teaching,” “the Church’s property,” or “the Church is listening.” Sometimes this is done with a nod of the head toward Temple Square, so it is wise to stay oriented when in Salt Lake City. If the word “Church” is ever written by a Mormon when referring to the LDS Church, it is always capitalized. It is the Church and a capital ‘C’ reminds us all. Any other church is designated with a pitifully small ‘c.’ So a member of the LDS will write, “John goes to First Baptist Church,” thus writing the name properly. But if he should write, “John’s church is weird,” a small ‘c’ is used. If this same LDS member writes, “Our Church is awesome,” it gets the Big C treatment.

Another surprisingly important matter: standard usage is to employ the phrase “Latter-day Saints” to refer to the LDS Church today, but to use its nonhyphenated version—“Latter Day Saints”—to refer to the faithful when Joseph Smith walked the earth. So the sentence “The Latter Day Saints marched to Nauvoo in 1840” would get the nonhyphenated treatment. The sentence “Ten Latter-day Saints went to see the play The Book of Mormon,” would get the hyphenated treatment—and would not, by the way, be widely believed.

In this book, we will respect the convention of the hyphenated and nonhyphenated versions of the religion’s name: no hyphen for the faithful who lived when Joseph Smith breathed; hyphen for every more recent Saint. It is standard usage now.

We will also observe the Church’s preference for capitalizing the word Church when referring to the LDS Church. This is not because the author shares the LDS’s regard for itself. It is simply an act of graciousness that has the added benefit of making it easier to distinguish which church (Church) is being referred to in the text.

This is where our literary largesse ends, though. In this book, Mormons, LDS, Saints, or Church are nearly interchangeable terms. The view in these chapters is that the word Mormon has lost whatever insult factor it may have had and has entered modern usage with no more venom than attached to the words Anglican or Buddhist—though with a good deal less than is attached to Muslim and slightly more than evoked by Pentecostal. The word Mormon also does not evoke the memory of a man for most moderns. Instead, it is simply a literary symbol for what is: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the grand sum of its proud accomplishments. Without malice we shall speak of the Mormon Church, use the term Mormonism to describe anything in the LDS world, and summon the word Saints with thought for no more than simply providing variety of expression.

One final matter. The author of this book is not a Mormon, and this book is intended neither to defend nor to prosecute Mormonism. It is meant to be an exploration of LDS influence in America, reaching into LDS Church history for origins and meaning. Still, positions will be taken. Controversies will be aired. Tensions will be defined.

During this process, nothing would make it more tedious than for nearly every sentence to be larded with “supposedly” or “allegedly” or “so says them.” Therefore, if telling LDS history requires describing an angel showing up in Joseph Smith’s bedroom one night—and it does—then the narrative here might read “Smith reported a visitation” or even “and a visitation came.” It will almost certainly include the words, “And Moroni said . . .” The reader must always keep in mind that the author is portraying a religion not his own and is doing so with respect for both the Mormon people and good writing.

Thousands of disclaimers, however brief, do not a smooth read make. Similarly, a book about a people that takes every pain to refer to that people and their beliefs with derision need not have been written. It would indicate flawed scholarship, flawed literature, and flawed humanity. Best to simply state what Mormons believe, having first established that it is not the view of the author.

And now we have done so.



No question the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “having a moment.”1


It is another day in the life of Mormon America.

For some news commentators, it is the next phase of an unfolding “Mormon Moment.” For more than a few scholars, it is the latest stage in the surprising but assured Mormon ascent in our time. For large numbers of Christian evangelicals, it is the unfolding of a carefully crafted Mormon plan to rule the world from America. For the nation’s Mormons, it is opportunity to face the tests that mean eternal progress beyond this “lone and dreary world.” And for secular America, it is yet another occasion for the passing parade of oddities that Mormons have long supplied.

It is 9 a.m. in Utah. On the second floor of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City, Michael Otterson, head of Mormon public relations, sits in his corner office and tries to hide his weariness as he defends the spiritual fortress of the Latter-day Saints. He is in his late fifties; tall, distinguished, and smooth of manner—his British accent lending precision and weight to his every sentence. It is not hard to imagine him the newspaper editor he was for more than a decade before he made the move to Temple Square.

“No, I’ve not seen The Book of Mormon on Broadway,” he says evenly to an interviewer. “Mormons don’t go to R-rated movies or lewd plays. I have read the script, though, and I find it pretty blasphemous. Still, it hasn’t hurt us.”

“Hasn’t hurt you?” the other man asks, his fingers capturing every word on the iPad in his lap. “How can that be? It is a biting deconstruction of everything Mormon. Haven’t you heard Bill Maher sing its praises on HBO?”

“Yes. Of course, though Bill Maher is no one I take seriously. But I have read the reviews and there is something sweet about how the play is being perceived. You know, in the end, the missionaries win. Most of the reviews talk about this. And I can tell you that the musical is only driving interest in us. We’ve had our missionaries stopped on the streets of New York by people with questions about our faith. Local hotels have run out of the Book of Mormon and we’ve had to resupply them by the boxful.”

“But it has to hurt you ultimately, doesn’t it?” the writer presses, almost sympathetically. “It’s a complete attack on everything you believe.”

“Listen. Mormons have always been treated harshly. We are the only religion in the United States ever to be put under an extermination order. That was in Missouri. And the order was only rescinded fifteen years ago. We’ve been gunned down, imprisoned for our beliefs, and we’ve had our property confiscated again and again. We are certainly going to survive a spiteful Broadway play!”2

Thirty minutes’ drive south of Salt Lake City, Anne Wilde sits at her kitchen table with an inquisitive researcher. It is late morning on an icy day and her low-roofed ranch house is warm and welcoming, the view of the Wasatch Mountains through her front picture window an inspiration.

Anne is in her early seventies with a stern face easy to envision on a Mormon pioneer’s wife a century and a half ago. Yet there is kindness in her eyes and more than a hint of the suffering she has endured, of the hard path she has chosen.

“I was raised in the Latter-day Saints,” she says quietly but proudly. “My second cousin was President Ezra Taft Benson, the leader of the LDS in the late 1980s and early ’90s. I graduated with honors from Brigham Young University and married in the Temple. But then my marriage ended in divorce, and that’s when I began studying the doctrines taught in the early Church. It became clear to me. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that plural marriage is essential for celestial exaltation. It still is, I believe. When President Woodruff banned plural marriage in 1890, it was a political move. It was a compromise. There was no ‘thus saith the Lord.’ And I haven’t heard a ‘thus saith the Lord’ from the Church since.”

“So how long were you a polyga—I mean, in a plural marriage, Anne?” the researcher asks.

“Thirty-three years. My husband’s name was Ogden Kraut and I loved him with all my heart. He absolved my first marriage and then we were sealed. He had other wives and they lived in other homes. I only had one day of jealousy my whole life with him. We were very happy. We produced sixty-five books together, all helping to restore the original doctrines of the Church, plural marriage in particular. Ogden and I were very close. We had something very special.”

Her guest is quiet for a moment. The two sit silently, thinking about the life Anne has led. Then he asks, “How did your family take your marriage to a man with other wives?”

“My parents never knew. It would have been too much for them. My neighbors didn’t know either. And my children did not take it well. They never felt close to Ogden, never liked the kind of marriage it was. It has left us distant ever since.”

“And are you close to Ogden’s other wives now that he is dead?” the young man asks.

“They are all dead too. It is actually quite lonely for me now. In fact, even when they were living it was a bit lonely because they were all so much older and we lived in separate homes.”

“So, Anne, you believe that you will be married to Ogden again in the next life, right? You trust that Ogden and all of his wives will live together for all eternity?”

“Yes. If I’m found worthy, I’ll be with Ogden again in eternity and we will be like Heavenly Father. That’s what I’m living for. I miss him. But please don’t misunderstand: I loved Ogden, but I chose plural marriage because it’s the price of celestial exaltation, the highest state in eternity. It’s what the Prophet Joseph Smith taught. And I can tell you that it isn’t easy to live, but it is the price of being saved at the highest level.”

Fourteen hundred miles to the east, two Vanderbilt University football players stand in line at San Antonio Taco Company, the popular Mexican food joint just across 21st Avenue from the main campus. The place is known around town as SATCO and it has, no doubt, the best soft tacos in Nashville. The athletes, both pushing 250 pounds, plan to down a dozen of them each for lunch and they are loudly “talkin’ smack” about whose turn it is to buy.

Suddenly, the taller one stops. His jaw drops open and he nods toward the door. Soon both are staring in awe.

The girl they can’t look away from is a stunner. She has a full mane of billowing blond hair, the kind of body most men dream of, and the elegance of a dancer.

The two football players begin elbowing each other wordlessly. Each intends to be the first to approach.

Then the girl turns from the order counter in their direction. And they see what they couldn’t before. Stretched across her chest are the words printed on her T-shirt: “I can’t. I’m Mormon.”

The two linemen stop shoving. Muffled laughter sounds from the lunchtime crowd. More than a few have been watching. And from behind the two comes the voice of another football player who has just arrived.

“Dee-niiiieed,” he says, in the mock manner of an overexcited sportscaster.

It is 1300 hours Romeo and at a secure conference room at USCENTCOM, Lieutenant General Marshall Hollings is unhappy. “Major, I told you to bring me the right man for a snake-eater assignment and you bring me the Boy Scout we just met. And he’s a Mormon? I need someone hard-boiled, Major. I don’t need some fresh-faced ring knocker.”

“Sir, I understand, but Captain Jensen is—”

“I know! I know! He’s Annapolis and a SEAL Assault Team leader and he was decorated for Fallujah. And one of the Chiefs wants to marry him. I get it. But I need someone nasty, not a résumé. Do I have to spell it out?

“No, sir, but . . .”

“And a Mormon? I know it ain’t PC, but you think a missionary can do this one?”


On Sale
Jul 3, 2012
Page Count
290 pages
Worthy Books

Stephen Mansfield

About the Author

Stephen Mansfield is a writer and speaker best known for his groundbreaking books on the role of religion in history, leadership, and modern culture. He first came to international attention with The Faith of George W. Bush, the New York Times bestseller that influenced Oliver Stone’s film, W. His book The Faith of Barack Obama was another international bestseller.

He has written celebrated biographies of Booker T. Washington, George Whitefield, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln, among others. Stephen speaks around the world on topics of faith, leadership, and culture. He is also the founder of two firms: The Mansfield Group ( and Chartwell Literary Group ( He lives in Nashville and in Washington, DC,with his wife, Beverly, who is an award-winning songwriter and producer.

Learn more about this author