Lynita Newswander on Mormons in America
Date: August 27th, 2012
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With Mitt Romney running for president of the United States, there has been a heightened interest to learn about the Mormon faith. We tackle this subject once again on our show by examining the historical legacy and contemporary impact that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has had on US culture and politics. Prof. Lynita Newswander, and adjunct professor of political science at the University of South Dakota, joins us to discuss her recent book, LDS in the USA, co-authored with Lee Trepanier. The book itself is interesting given that it represents a collaboration between a scholar who is Mormon (Newswander) and one who is not (Trepanier). We discuss the reasons for this interesting collaboration as well as for why the book ended up with the title that it did. Tony proposes the book should have its own theme song based upon the popular Bruce Springsteen song “Born in the USA” and actually sings a few lines from what he thinks that song should sound like — a very special treat for our regular listeners. We then dive into a brief history of Mormonism with Lynita pointing out that Mormons, due to persecution, became emigrants from their own country only to have that country catch up with them in the midst of Westward expansion, making them immigrants in a nation which they still retained citizenship in. This creates a certain tenor to LDS history, wherein members have seen themselves as both outsiders and insiders in American history making them what Brigham Young called “a peculiar people.” Our discussion covers how Mormons have conformed to and shaped “core American values” including the notions of diversity, tolerance, and family. Prof. Newswander shares her unique perspective on Mormon identity growing up outside of Utah and as a member of a religious minority group in Texas and why she found her recent trip to Salt Lake City to be rather interesting. She notes that there is a strong tendency within the LDS Church for members to want to group together, which in effect continues to make the religion rather distinct, a feeling that she experienced when she went to school at BYU. We continue with the interview noting how Mormon influences have made their way into American culture, from Donny and Marie Osmond in the 1970s to the best-selling author Stephenie Meyer (the “Twighlight” series) and to their appearance on reality TV shows more recently. The conversation then turns to the controversial topic of Jell-O consumption and whether Utah or Iowa holds the title for highest per capita consumption of that convenient snack food. We also discuss how the non-Mormon media has recently portrayed the LDS faith through such shows as Big Love and Sister Wives. This brings up the issue of polygamy and Lynita clarifies how the main branch of the LDS Church has long ago renounced this practice even though some offshoot sects of the faith still practice it. We discuss how shows such as Big Love often give a skewed view of what Mormons actually believe and do. All of this is within the context of the American ideal of religious tolerance, which we note that Americans sometimes have a hard time living up to. Our podcast finishes with a discussion of Mitt Romney and the role that he is playing in making Mormonism a more accepted faith within American society. Recorded: August 22, 2012.
LDS in the USA: Mormonism and the Making of American Culture, by Lee Trepanier and Lynita K. Newswander.
Mitt Romney’s “Faith in America” speech at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library (December 6, 2007).
Michael McBride on Religious Free-Riding and the Mormon Church.
Patrick Mason on Anti-Mormonism and Mitt Romney.
Allison Pond on Being a Mormon Missionary.
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