Once again, cannibalized from my Sunstone talk. The so-called Mormon Moment, and the way it ended.
The Mormon Moment was, at least initially, about seeming. Our world really did become a stage, it seemed, and we really did become players. We’re used to that anyway. From our first talk in junior Primary to Primary programs to the talks and testimonies we offer, we’re on display. We’re told to be good examples; we’re told to play missionary when in public. We’re told to testify to each other. We all know our lines, do we not? With Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign, we felt it, the spotlight on our collective faces. We became a people defined by optics and soundbites, presentation and representation. The Mormon Moment was, in short, theatre.
That’s not to indict the carefully crafted ‘I’m a Mormon ads,’ nor, certainly, the people who appeared on them. But like reality TV, reality advertising consists of narratives carefully shaped and edited and presented. There’s a falseness there, right next to the sincerity and reality of the testimonies themselves. I’m a Mormon we said. I’m a painter, I’m a sculptor, I’m lead singer for a rock band, I’m a biker, and also, I’m a Mormon. We’re not all businessmen. We’re not who you think we are.
But theatre isn’t just an exterior art form. We offer carefully constructed simulacrums of reality that somehow also manage to dig under the surface of what we’re portraying; it’s representation, but at times it can become revelatory. Hamlet doesn’t exist; he’s a construct of language, given flesh by an actor, in a space. We see a production of Hamlet, and we marvel over the cleverness of the design, the careful blocking by a director, the specific line-reading choices of the actors.
But I remember sitting on a train in London after seeing a particularly fascinating conceptual approach to Hamlet, engaged in a spirited discussion with a group of students. One girl sat quietly, by herself. To draw her in, I said, “what did you think of it?” “I hated it,” she said, quietly. Taken aback, I said, “really? I thought it was fascinating; the period, the setting, the acting chops on display. Why?” “I didn’t care,” she said. “I should care. He’s trying to decide whether or not he should kill himself, and I should care a lot. And he only decides not to because he’s terrified that what comes next might be worst. Life sucks so much for him, he wants to off himself. And you’re all, ooo, the design, ooo, the acting and concept. And I didn’t care. Hamlet’s too important for aesthetics.” She said that, in that train, and in a flash I realized that she was right. I didn’t care either, and I should have. Form without substance should leave us indifferent. It’s the substance that harrows.
So the Mormon Moment was, in very large measure, about Mitt Romney’s campaign for President of the United States. And there’s no foodstuffs with more empty calories than a Presidential campaign. Really; it’s all about optics and sound bites, stump speeches and media manipulation. And so so many balloons. Slogans, carefully tested. Hope and Change. Change we can believe in. What was Romney’s campaign slogan? I had to look it up: “Believe in America.” In his first run for President, Barack Obama briefly chose not to wear a flag pin on his lapel, a refreshing moment of rebellion from the handlers and managers. Then that became a thing, and now the pin is ubiquitous. Romney changed costumes, losing the suits as too corporate. We started seeing him in Dockers and checkered shirts. Even when he wore a white shirt and tie, the sleeves were rolled up. “I’m ready to get to work fixing America,” the outfit loudly proclaimed. Mostly we saw Obama in suits. “I’m a black guy executive,’ the suits announced. “A black guy you can trust.” And weren’t both as bogus and phony as Rick Perry’s new glasses? As the ‘oops’ guy poses as an intellectual.
And so, we can look at the whole enterprise cynically, and say, ‘they’re both the same, what does it matter, they’re both phony and the whole thing is ridiculous. I don’t believe in Obama or Romney, any more than I believe that Axe body spray will make me more appealing to women.’ And part of you would be right. It really is all semiotic manipulation. We’re all good post-modernists, and share, as Lyotard put it, ‘an incredulity to metanarrative.’ The presidential campaign as performance art strikes me as a particularly rich field for that incredulity.
But that’s not all that’s going on. Under the outward form, we had to keep reminding ourselves, there really was substance. Let’s say you’re a young working mom, and it’s two o’clock in the morning, and your daughter is sick, feverish and headachy, plus her neck hurts. And you don’t have health insurance. And right then, right there, you’re faced with it, sick child, middle of the night, and you have two choices, and both of them suck. Both of your choices are completely, totally irresponsible. You can decide to take your child to the emergency room of a local hospital, and rack up a huge bill you have no possible way of paying, throwing already fragile home finances into even greater confusion and disarray. Or you can hope she gets better on her own. Maybe it’s just a late night kid’s fever, no big deal. Couple of Bayer children’s aspirin, and in the morning she’ll be running around same as always. Or it could be meningitis. And you don’t have health insurance. Two choices, and they’re both awful.
And that reality, that decision faced by millions of working poor families across the nation, that was what was at stake in the 2012 Presidential election. It wasn’t about slogans and balloons. It was about sick kids in the middle of the night. It was about cancer patients denied coverage because they’d been treated for acne when they were teens. It was about differences in policy with real world consequences. It was about that Mom, and that sick kid. It was as real as a punch in the gut. And one of the two candidates had gotten legislation passed that helped that Mom, and helped that child. And the other, it suddenly seemed, opposed it? And, of course, the irony is that the program Obama had enacted had originally been Romney’s idea. But, Romney, after slogging through that Bataan death march of endless debates with insane people, had so compromised himself that the needed swivel to the left (which he executed with some dexterity), didn’t reassure. And, of course, health care wasn’t the only issue in the campaign. It was about lots of things; Keynesian economics, foreign wars, regulation. But when it came to issues of equality? The choice was pretty stark, was it not?
The Mormon Moment had its ironies, not the least of which is that the media’s go-to person for explanations of all things Mormon tended to be progressives, most especially Joanna Brooks. In previous years, they’d gone to Jan Shipps, the ultimate inside outsider. And Jan did Mormonism a great service—put her name on the statue next to Colonel Kane and General Doniphan. But with Joanna Brooks, we had something even better than a inside outsider; we have an outside insider, bright as hell and articulate and insightful. I don’t, obviously, have the faintest idea who Joanna Brooks voted for. But does her writing not suggest a progressive?
But looking back at that campaign, I can think of two turning point moments above all others. The first came when President Obama made the appalling rookie politician’s mistake of telling the truth. “If you’ve got a successful business, you didn’t build that alone.” In other words: someone helped you, someone provided advice and capital, lots of someones pitched in to build infrastructure. What Obama dared suggest was that the Ayn Randian protean solitary genius, the Howard Roark or John Galt so loved by the libertarian right, is as much a figure of fantasy as Gandalf or Albus Dumbledore. His heresy was particularly resented by the likes of the Koch Brothers, rugged individualists who built their corporation entirely through their own hard work and enterprise, after inheriting a billion dollar company from their John Birch society founder Daddy, Fred Koch. Who got his start-up capital from Josef Stalin. True story. Still, they did it on their own! And bankrolled TV ad after TV ad showing President Obama tell businessmen that they didn’t do it on their own.
The President took a hit in the polls after that gaffe. But the more revealing incident came later in the campaign, when a Youtube video showed a clandestine recording of a speech Romney gave at a fundraiser in Boca Raton; the 47% speech. And the optics of that were particularly damaging. In the video, you can barely see Romney at all. Mostly, you see the backs of four people sitting in chairs. From time to time, we see a bartender in the foreground. The sound quality is patchy. And that all gives it the feel of authenticity. This, we think, is the straight scoop; this is what Romney really believes. Ignore the campaign; this is the real Romney.
It was devastating. It killed his chance of being President, I think. Because it felt real. Because it was real. There was no way to spin that video, no way to contextualize it to reduce the damage. And in a sense, the Mormon moment ended there, as the 47% video made its way from bartender Scott Prouty to David Corn at Mother Jones to Rachel Maddow to every major news outlet in America. Mitt Romney lost control of the campaign narrative. From ‘sleeves rolled up, ready to go to work to fix what’s wrong with America,’ the narrative became, ‘I don’t care about nearly half the country, especially working class people.’ From ‘competent techocrat,’ to ‘arrogant rich plutocrat.’ The actor’s artifice revealed; it was that backstage moment when you discover that the magic castle is nothing but flats; painted canvas. It was devastating.
The 47% video was the beginning of the end to the Mormon moment. The Kate Kelly excommunication was the final death blow. No longer would the national conversation about Mormons be about Romney and all those nice grandkids and Jabari Parker and ‘gosh, did you know that Imagine Dragons and the Neon Trees are Mormon!” It became about excommunication, an old-fashioned, even medieval Catholic word, and how dismayingly oppressive it sounded to post-modern ears. What’s fascinating about the Kate Kelly case is the degree to which it became a battle between Ordain Women and Church Public Relations. It was, it seems, at least in part a fight over who would control the narrative regarding women in the Church. Ally Isom, from Church Public Relations, came on Doug Fabrizio’s show, and Fabrizio asked: “If women are raising that question, instead of being disciplined for raising that question, shouldn’t they be engaged in a conversation about it.” Ally Isom’s reply: “The conversation is not the problem. It is not what is being said. It is how it is being said.” In other words, it was always about style, about word choice, about presentation. It’s about the theatrics.
And it doesn’t matter who won. No one won. And that’s the reality under the theatrics: pain. Serious, debilitating pain. It hurt the Church. It hurt Kate Kelly. It hurt Hannah Wheelwright. It hurt a lot of us here. Here, on Mormoniconoclast, I imagined two women. One, a young professional, accustomed to being treated as an equal, who looks at Church culture and is overcome with cognitive dissonance. Result: pain, disillusionment, anger and frustration. The other, a woman who has never felt disrespected in the Church, but does feel disrespected by Ordain Women, who feels that her own life of faith and sacrifice is being slighted. Pain. Someone responded by positing a third hypothetical women, torn apart, sympathetic to both sides, pained at having to take sides, caught in the middle. Pain, and more pain. And civility erodes, and it turns out nobody controlled the narrative, the narrative became collateral damage. Families shredded, pre-mature faith transitions. People all over the Church writing The Letter. It was, and remains, awful.
So what’s next? How will the next narrative read? Is it time for retrenchment? Time to double-down on engagement? I wish I had something more profound to offer than ‘we will see.’