Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: Seeking the Promised Land

Meet the Mormons

In 1996, Time magazine named Stephen R. Covey one of the twenty-five most influential Americans. His best-known book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1990), has long been a staple of bookstores and best-seller lists, having sold more than 25 million copies. Covey built a self-help empire teaching executives how to employ his habits to make an effective business. When he passed away in 2012, his New York Times obituary noted that “more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies” had sought his advice (D. Martin 2012). Covey also consulted with political leaders, winning praise from Democrats like President Bill Clinton and Republicans like Newt Gingrich. His advice even extended beyond the boardroom to the family room with a followup book on creating highly effective families (Covey 1997). With his bipartisan appeal, folksy wisdom, and sunny disposition, Covey was part Norman Vincent Peale, part Dale Carnegie.

Covey was also a Mormon, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Far from merely a peripheral aspect of his life and work, Covey’s Mormonism served as the foundation for his famous seven habits. Fellow Mormon and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen told the Economist that “the seven habits are essentially a secular distillation of Mormon teaching” (Economist 2012). Indeed, prior to writing The Seven Habits, Covey published a book for a Mormon audience, The Spiritual Roots of Human Relations (1970), which employed many of the same concepts.

Covey is only one example among many of how Mormons seemingly stand at the center of American culture – they are the “quintessential Americans,” as columnist George Will put it back in 1979 (cited in Moore 1986, 43). In 1959, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir won a Grammy for its recording of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In the 1970s, Donny and Marie Osmond were America’s sweethearts, with hits on the pop charts and a top-rated television variety show. In 2002, Mormons received very positive press coverage during the Winter Olympics hosted by Salt Lake City, a city founded by Mormons and today the worldwide headquarters for the LDS Church.

Those Olympics were run by Mitt Romney. He was given the job of running the Olympics in the wake of a bribery scandal and financial difficulties that were threatening to tarnish the Games. As head of Bain Capital, Romney had specialized in the art of the turnaround. And turn around the Olympics he did, as they made a profit and were generally thought to be a success (Gold 2012). His business background no doubt made him an attractive choice to take the reins of a troubled Olympics. But given that the games were held in Utah, his religious background certainly mattered too. Like Covey, Romney is a Mormon, with deep family roots in the LDS Church.

Five years later, Mitt Romney was running for president. Given the importance of religion to many American voters, one might think that belonging to the “quintessentially American” church would be a political asset – and especially in the Republican primaries, where conservative values are a boon. Instead, Romney was confronted with suspicion regarding his religion, from both the left and the right. Editorialists argued that voters were “thoroughly justified” in opposing a Mormon presidential candidate on the grounds of his religion (Weisberg 2006a; Linker 2006). Romney’s leading opponent in the primaries, former Southern Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee, subtly raised suspicions about his religion (Chafets 2007). Out on the hustings, anti-Mormon sentiment was anything but subtle. For example, many South Carolina voters were sent an unsigned eight-page anti-Mormon diatribe in 2007 (Spencer 2007).

In this context, a Gallup poll found that 28 percent of Americans openly said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, a number essentially unchanged since 1967 – when Mitt Romney’s father, Michigan governor George Romney, also ran for president. Interestingly, this was roughly the same percentage of Americans who said that they would not vote for a Catholic candidate in 1960, when John F. Kennedy was running for president (Jones 2007).

Given the controversy over his religion, it should not be surprising that in both 2008 and 2012, Romney generally steered clear of discussing it. In today’s religion-soaked presidential campaigns – especially among Republicans – his religious reticence stood out. This is not to say, however, that he ignored the “Mormon question.” In 2007, during his first run for the presidency, Romney sought to address concerns about his Mormonism in a speech delivered in College Station, Texas, evoking memories of a comparable speech delivered by Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign, also in Texas. In that speech, Romney walked a fine line. On the one hand, he spoke of his core belief in Jesus, leading to a remarkable statement for someone running for the secular office of the presidency: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.” On the other hand, he declined to discuss the “distinctive doctrines” of his church and instead invoked his belief in a common set of “moral values” found in nearly all religious traditions (Romney 2007).

In his 2012 campaign, Romney delivered no comparable speech about his faith, and mostly tried to keep the focus on his business background. To the extent that his religion was mentioned, it was generally either journalists reporting on the millions of dollars he has donated to the LDS Church (Montgomery, Yang, and Rucker 2012) or friends of Romney describing his time as a lay leader in his church ministering to members of his congregation (S. Holland 2012). Through his highlighting of these aspects of Mormonism, Americans unfamiliar with the faith were introduced to the tight bonds Mormons form with one another, and the often-extraordinary investment of time and money they make in their church.

This book is about the seeming paradox of Mormonism in American life, as revealed by the contrast between Stephen Covey and Mitt Romney. If Mormons are the quintessential Americans, Covey and Romney could be considered the quintessential Mormons – or, at least, they are exemplars of how Mormons are often presented and perceived. Both are toothsome family men who achieved considerable professional and financial success. Yet whatever similarities they share, the contrast in their public reception is telling. Covey wrote a book that has sold 25 million copies by distilling his Mormon beliefs into secular language, with no antagonism toward the peculiar features of his faith. Romney ran for president and, despite stressing his faith’s commonalities with other American religions, faced antagonism over Mormonism’s distinctiveness. Who better represents the place of Mormons in today’s America: Covey or Romney? Are the Latter-day Saints a “quintessentially American” faith or a “peculiar people” set apart?

To read the full excerpt, click here.

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