Author: ‘Mormons are deeply aware of their own oddness’
Author details faith’s rise and reach during its big ‘moment.’
Published: March 23, 2012 11:18AM
Updated: March 9, 2012 05:51PM
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Matthew Bowman, author of "The Mormon People: The Making of An American Faith." Credit: Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman’s new book, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, was conceived and birthed in a little under three months.

The 352-page volume arrived on shelves in late January, in time to capture the energy and interest of the so-called “Mormon moment,” with Latter-day Saint Mitt Romney in the heat of a presidential race. Since its publication, first-time author Bowman has been a ubiquitous presence in TV, newspaper and online stories about the Utah-based faith. Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw called Bowman’s book “essential reading for anyone interested in 2012 and beyond.”

Bowman, a Mormon, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Utah and a doctorate from Georgetown University, with a dissertation on New York evangelicals. His work on evangelicalism and Mormonism has been published in Religion and American Culture, Journal of the Early Republic and The New Republic. He teaches American religious religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. He is also an editor at Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and was a four-time winner of the Mormon History Association’s Juanita Brooks Award for Best Graduate Paper.

The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed Bowman, who will speak at several Utah locations in coming days, in Salt Lake City and via email.

How did the book come to be?

On June 22, 2011, Jon Meacham [former Newsweek editor] called me. That was a bit of a surprise. He said, “I believe there’s a 50/50 chance we’ll have a Mormon president next year. I feel the time is right for an accessible, narrative history of Mormonism, and I want you to write it.” He had asked [Joseph Smith biographer] Richard Bushman first, and Bushman turned him down. Then Richard gave him my name. I had just published a piece in The New Republic. Jon asked me to do it. I called him back a couple of days later and said yes. He said, “We’d like to have the manuscript by Labor Day and the book on the shelves by primary season.”

I said, “Oh dear. I don’t know if I can do that.” He offered me two extra weeks. I gave it to them on September 14, three months later. [Random House] wanted 70,000 words. I gave them 110,000, and they didn’t cut anything.

What did Meacham want it to be?

He didn’t have a focused idea; just a history of the church. I would like to have written a history of Mormonism with Joseph Smith as a minor character. He did not encourage that. He said Joseph Smith is popular, Joseph Smith is sexy, and it would sell more books.

What did you want it to be?

The conventional Mormon history devotes half [of the book] to Joseph Smith, a third to Brigham Young and the last chapter to all the rest. I wanted to synthesize all the vast material written about Mormonism in the past 30 years. I wanted to produce a narrative of the 20th century, which we might be able to hang other work on. I want to explain how Mormons entered the 20th century, how they left it and what changed in between. Of course, Joseph is in there, too.

What was the hardest part to write?

It was in Chapter 6, where I struggled with the Progressive Era, just after World War I. Mormons share a lot with progressives, both in terms of ideology and behavior. They share a radically optimistic view of human nature, of human possibility, of our capacity to organize and solve humanity’s problems. They also share a commitment to organization and bureaucracy, and faith that it will accomplish what we want it to accomplish. Once I figured out the argument, the rest fell into place.

How has the book been received?

A couple of reviews have been terrible. One took me to task for not treating the idea of Mormonism as a cult. Academics don’t use the word “cult.” What I have learned from the reception is that, in fact, most Americans get what they know about the Mormons from Jon Krakauer [Under the Banner of Heaven] and [HBO’s] “Big Love,” more than anything else. That is dispiriting. Other than that, there have been a lot of positive reviews as well, which is gratifying.

How does your book relate to the “Mormon moment” and Mitt Romney’s campaign?

Romney is sort of the walking embodiment of Mormon confidence. He has faith in his own leadership abilities, faith that the right committee can address most issues, faith that problems are basically solvable. His particular optimism, competence, and slight awkwardness all strike me as distinctly derived from Mormonism’s progressive heritage: It makes him both slightly out of place in contemporary American politics, but at the same time virtually the model of your average Mormon stake president.

His Mormon moment, though, is hardly the first; every decade or two, it seems, Americans ponder letting Mormons become mainstream, and they usually decide in the negative.

Do you think Mormonism will ever enter the mainstream? If so, why and when?

What it will take for Mormons to become mainstream is, simply, the church increasing tenfold. Much of the suspicion derives from how small, and therefore insular, the church appears. So many of these things were said about Catholics 100 years ago.

Catholics had to obey the pope, had “weird” rituals, wore “strange clothing” and did odd things like Lent and all this other stuff. So many similar accusations are now being made against Mormons.

Then, between 1890 and 1960, Catholics became 25 percent of the American population. That mainlined them better than anything that the Catholics themselves could do.

What do you hope non-Mormons will learn about the faith from reading your book?

I’d like non-Mormons to come away with a couple of things: first, a sense that Mormonism is in fact a very diverse movement, one with a lot of different flavors, tendencies and blends — as much as any other religion. And secondly, I’d like them to realize that Mormons themselves today wrestle with a lot of things other Americans find odd about the faith: Mormons are deeply aware of their own oddness, but also deeply confident that their oddness should not preclude them from full participation in American life.

What do Mormons think is odd about their faith?

Mormons are distinctly aware of their own status as what they call a “peculiar people,” a faith with a particular mandate from heaven, particular obligations to the divine that set them apart from the world. They often perceive the world to be a place of challenge and threats, a place like St. Augustine’s City of Man, where the faithful are merely visitors. And yet at the same time they believe their faith makes their lives in that world far better, far more productive, far happier. They both fit and do not fit in the world.

Do younger Latter-day Saints experience Mormonism differently from their parents?

Mormonism, like any other institution on Earth, is always evolving, always changing. [Former] President Gordon B. Hinckley brought to the front of Mormon life a new openness, a new friendliness toward the world, a new confidence that Mormonism had little to fear in engagement with American culture and life. This has marked the faith deeply in the past two decades.

pstack@sltrib.com

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Meet the author

Matthew Bowman, author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, will sign books and speak at several Utah venues in the coming week:

March 10, 7 p.m. • The King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City

March 15, 1 p.m. • Lecture, LDS Church History Library, 15 E. North Temple, Salt Lake City

March 15, 6 p.m. • Barnes & Noble, 500 S. and 500 West, Bountiful

March 17, 7 p.m. • Lecture, University of Utah Union building