What makes your book different from the other introductory works on Mormonism?
It is a narrative history of Mormonism. My editor put it to me as "from Joseph Smith to Mitt Romney.” There aren’t actually a lot of those already. There are three; two, The Mormon Experience and The Story of the Latter-day Saints, are 40 years old, and the last one is ten years old and it’s quite short. It, like much of the official material, reads the essential parts of Mormon history as being Joseph Smith and Brigham Young – the early years of the church. Not a lot of attention is given to the 20th century. So I wanted to do two things: first, synthesize the amount of scholarship that had been done since the 1970s, and second, to give a good history of 20th-century Mormonism.
Tell me how the book came into being. I know you wrote it at a crazy speed.
Ten weeks. Ten weeks. I insisted that that fact be acknowledged in the introduction, which it is. That’s about 30 pages a week for ten weeks. It was rather grueling.
And here I was feeling very good about myself when I do 1,000 words a day.
My pace for my dissertation was two pages a day, and I didn’t always hit that. So this was unprecedented for me. And it has down sides; I was not able to do everything I wanted. I would have liked to do less on Joseph Smith and more on early Mormonism as a social experience. In my early conversation with Jon Meacham, I pitched that at him, and he gently guided me toward talking more about Joseph Smith. People are more interested in Joseph Smith than the early Mormon experiences of people like William McLellin.
The first five chapters went very smoothly because I leaned heavily on work that had already been laid down. The last three chapters contain more original research, which was more work but also very rewarding.
Why did you decide to include a whole chapter on Correlation, the Church’s program to systematize its teachings and organizations around the world?
It’s Correlation, broadly thought of. There’s a great deal about the program and its administrative aspects, but more generally it’s a chapter in which I discuss the growing conservative nature of Mormonism in the 20th century, the settlement into a new sense of what being Mormon is. It’s post-progressive Mormonism; – a church defined by effort and self-discipline, by cultivating moral rectitude, and a church less and less sympathetic to the growing permissiveness of American culture. I talk in this chapter to some extent about Saturday’s Warrior, for instance, and its obsession with birth control. I also address other cultural developments that consolidate what Mormonism had become and send it on a new trajectory toward insularity and suspicion of the outside world.
The Mormons in the 1960s are suddenly not that sympathetic to the national mood anymore; there’s this renewed sense of being separate and different. I see this sense of separation as part of the popularity of Bruce R. McConkie. I pay a lot of attention to him in this chapter.
You’ve been extremely busy with the media. What are you learning?
I’m learning that you need to have a solid paragraph about polygamy before you get to explain anything else, because they always ask – even when you’re told that the interview will be about Mitt Romney and politics. They will ask you first about polygamy.
That’s exactly my experience too.
I have been distressed by what I see as this persistent urge to exoticize Mormonism, to see it as something odd and alien. Or as something kind of cute, like the Osmonds. For many in the media, it appears that Mormons are either the Osmonds or the Laffertys, the murderous polygamists portrayed by Jon Krakauer.
And even those people who would not subscribe to the evangelical notion that Mormonism is a cult often take the associations of cultism seriously and insist that there’s something there that Mormons need to explain or disprove.
What do you think will happen to Mitt Romney?
I think whether or not Mitt Romney is elected has little to do with his Mormonism and everything to do with what the economy does this year. If the economy gets worse, he’ll win.
What would his winning mean for Mormonism?
I think many scholars would be delighted because it would mean steady business for them. I think many other Mormons wish it would all just go away because they’re tired of answering questions.