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Mormon Identity in the Age of Mitt Romney

About 30 seconds before Professor Matthew Bowman of Hampden-Sydney College sat down for an interview with me, I whispered to him:

Matthew, this interview is not for our colleagues in the American Academy of Religion. It’s not for the specialists that we write for in our scholarly publications. It’s for intelligent people everywhere, who will benefit from the breadth of your knowledge on this subject. So keep it real!

And keep it real he did.

With his inner wonk summoned, validated, and released, Dr. Bowman (author of the fine monograph, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith ) proceeded to dazzle us with highly sophisticated insights about the Mormon community, rendered in clear, accessible locutions.

Our guest tries to make sense of an extremely curious demographic finding: When it comes to voting for a Mormon president, conservative Evangelicals and secular liberals–not often thought of as fellow travelers–tend to share a pronounced hesitancy.

Dr. Bowman points out that Romney’s ascent is just one of countless historical “Mormon moments”–moments, he is at pains to note, which the tightly-knit and often vulnerable Mormons could just as happily live without.

One of the most interesting exchanges in our wide-ranging conversation concerned perceptions of Romney in the African-American community. Bowman senses that, because of now-abrogated exclusionist LDS teachings on blacks, Romney might have a concern among this constituency.

If you are of the opinion that a GOP presidential nominee running against an African-American incumbent ought not worry about the black vote, consider the following statistic, which I have alluded to elsewhere. In 2004, after a persistent effort to appeal to conservative black voters, George W. Bush was able to garner 16 percent of the African-American ballot in Ohio (up from 9 percent in 2000; Wineburg 2007, p. 88).

The point is that, in a modern presidential election, no community is to be taken for granted. This is one component of Romney’s Faith and Values outreach that his handlers will need to attend to very carefully.

I thank Dr. Bowman for granting us such a learned, energetic, and entertaining interview. I wish more scholars were like him.

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