Book Review: Stephen Mansfield's "The Mormonizing of America"


In the spirit of full disclosure let me lay my biases on the table. Stephen Mansfield is a dear friend, colleague and kindred spirit. What’s more, as my self-aggrandizing little banner ads to the right make clear, it’s been my privilege to be his sidekick on a couple of books in the past.

Yet if none of the above were the case, I’d still tell you that anything Stephen writes is worth reading–irrespective of topic.  For me, he’s among a very small group of favorite writers who are simply a pleasure to read.

Another is the blogger/columnist James Lileks. I’ve been following Lileks’ personal blog daily since right after 9/11. And most days it’s more gratifying to read James’ dashed-off account of his trip to Target earlier in the day than the work of most mainstream “journalists.”

Similarly, Stephen crafts such wonderful prose . . . delivers insights with such grace and musicality . . . that I’m always happy to pull up a chair when he’s telling a story–whether it’s a story about Churchill, the Guinness beer family, Oprah or the American fighting man in uniform.

In this case, the protagonist of the story he’s telling is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Colloquially, the Mormons.

Ironically, one of the key virtues of Stephen’s writing is also a reason he doesn’t sell even more books than he does (although he sells plenty.)

As you may have noticed, most of the mega-top-seller books in the realms of politics and culture are designed to inflame, not enlighten. Their success feeds on the reality that in our increasingly balkanized cultural landscape, what most people crave is the gratification that comes from having one’s existing beliefs and biases validated.

That appetite is especially understandable for conservatives and Christians who, unlike liberals, aren’t constantly being told how enlightened and virtuous and cool they are by movie plots, TV drama plots, stand up comics, sketch comics, popular songs, actors and pop tartlets. (I wrote about this at length here.)

Stephen has never shown much interest in writing that kind of book–even though he is a passionate Christian and thoroughly conservative by ideology. It’s not that he doesn’t have a viewpoint or is free from agendas. It’s just that he clearly trusts us as readers to consider the facts he has unearthed and come to our own conclusions. His prose doesn’t pry our jaws open to jam doctrines down our throats . . . he gently offers ideas for our consideration and invites us to embrace them.

In other words, Stephen doesn’t write to massage the converted. He writes to feed the intellectually hungry, to enlighten the confused, to persuade the skeptic, and to say to the antagonist, “Come let us reason together.”

Indeed one of my favorite and revealing stories about Stephen springs from a time he was a guest on Dan Rather’s HDNET TV news magazine “Dan Rather Reports.”

Naturally, Dan Rather being, you know, Dan Rather, the program’s editorial viewpoint is well left of center. And since being relegated to the icy Siberian backwaters of cable television after the “fake but true” scandal swirling around the falsified George W. Bush military service memo at 60 Minutes, Rather is fully free from the need to even pretend to be non-partisan or objective.

After taping the interview, many fellow conservatives I know might have been tempted to take the opportunity to give Rather a piece of their minds. Or at minimum, they would have been cooly polite and gotten out of there as quickly as possible. Stephen, being Stephen, instead invited Rather to join him and his bride for a steak dinner. On Stephen.

This is how he rolls.  Like another person I admire, he displays an annoying pattern of being seen breaking break with tax gatherers and sinners. A historian by hard-wiring and an evangelist by heavenly calling, Mansfield saw Rather not as an enemy to be confronted but as a potential friend to be won. His instinctive goal wasn’t a cathartic “telling off” of the man, but rather future influence in his life.

It is no accident that it was through Stephen’s keyboard that I first encountered Plato’s quote, “Be kind, for every man you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Indeed, our joint effort on the life and faith of Sarah Palin reflects this ethic. It sold quite well. But there is little doubt that we could have sold even more books if we’d written the fawning paean that Sarah’s passionate fans clearly wanted. Or perhaps a thunderous, screedy condemnation of her petty and vicious critics–and they are legion.

But that is not the literary endeavor Stephen graciously invited me to join. Our premise was simply this:

Sarah Palin is a fascinating and unique person of deep faith who is rising in prominence and influence. Let’s examine her faith journey, explore her influences and discern her worldview. Let’s report the good, the bad, and even the ugly as honestly as we can in the service of any reader interested in learning more about her.

A reviewer for the Pajamas Media group called our book “remarkably detached.” He meant it as a compliment and that’s precisely how we took it.

Enter Stephen’s latest offering: The Mormonizing of America: How the Mormon Religion Became Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture. The quasi-alarmist title, not withstanding, this book perfectly reflects the tone and tenor I described above.

For spending a little time with Mansfield here you will be rewarded with a richer, deeper understanding of the LDS story in America–the movement’s history. And you’ll come away with a pretty comprehensive survey of the religion’s beliefs. And as he makes clear here, there are some mighty odd ones.

Nevertheless, Stephen’s handling of these is simultaneously frank, Christian and charitable.

In other words, if someone is a kook, it’s possible to point the kookiness out without being ugly or mean about it. It’s possible to examine a person’s flaws and failings without denying his or her value as a human being. And this is precisely Stephen’s way–on the street and on the page.

But accessible history and theology are just tasty bonuses here. The chewy, meaty center of the book is Stephen’s quest to discover the how and why of Mormon success in America. He asks why so many Mormons seem to do so well. And then he leads us on a journey for answers.

It’s a journey worth taking.

I have three hopes for Stephen’s new book.

1. I hope The Mormonizing of America finds a wide readership. It deserves it. It’s a lovely, illuminating and thought-provoking piece of writing.

2. If my first wish is granted, I hope it’s success does not translate into dampened enthusiasm for the Republican nominee. As I tried to explain in a previous blog post titled “About the Mormon Thing,” I don’t think Mitt Romney’s faith should deter any evangelical from the vital work of retiring Mr. Obama. Indeed, I’m not concerned that people who read the book will be less likely to vote for Romney. But I do wonder if some who just glance at the title might be.

3. Finally, I would love to see this book “provoke to jealousy” my fellow evangelicals. As I read it, I found myself realizing there is much that has contributed to the creation of what Mansfield calls “the engine of Mormon advance in American society” that used to be true of we evangelical Christians.

Put another way, many of the cultural tools Mormons are currently using to grow in influence and impact are those we left lying on the ground rusting. We should own the concepts of community, family, missional focus, discipline and achievement. But we don’t. Today the divorce rate among evangelicals is virtually indistinguishable from that of raw pagans. We’re insular. Self-absorbed. Comfort-seeking. Complacent. Defeatist.

For some Stephen’s new book can and should serve as a wake-up call. For others, it’s a sensitive, perceptive and fascinating window into a mystery-shrouded cultural phenomenon. I recommend it.