Carla Carlisle on the rise of Mormons in America

The writer E. B. White maintained that writing of ‘the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living’ was the only kind of writing work he could accomplish ‘with sanctity or grace’. He looked at the world through the lens of his saltwater farm in Maine and the small things of his day-the behaviour of pigs, the price of eggs-kept him from being overwhelmed by the big things that, in his case, included the Depression, Hitler, the Second World War and the atomic bomb.  

I’m better with the narrow lens myself. When I was in White’s homeland last week, the wide-angle view-wars, fires, and floods-competed with a headline in USA Today that roared ‘U. S. owes $62 trillion’, with the small-print warning: ‘Unfunded obligations amount to $534,000 per household.’ Big numbers baffled White, but he would have known instinctively that a government that owes its soul is bound to make its citizens wary about spending money, even if they have some to spend. I saw the signs of wariness.

In the shops, my friend Susie and I were almost always the only customers. I was spending the way I do in Maine, buying bowls from potters that weigh down my hand luggage, but give me pleasure when I’m back home. Susie was the big spender’s prudent companion. Two years ago, she put her house in Freeport on the market and bought a condominium in Portland, downsizing when she had the energy to create a new home for herself. The house in Freeport, with a beautiful old barn attached, is still unsold. She’s dropped the price, but, fearful of leaving it empty another winter, she rented it out last year to a young family of Mormons.

That’s how we refer to them. We don’t say ‘the family’ or ‘the tenants’, we say ‘the Mormons’. In this neck of the woods, where Starbucks reigns and brew pubs are more plentiful than bookshops, Mormons (who do not drink coffee, tea or alcohol) seem more of a cult than a religious denomination. But here is where the dust needs to be wiped from the lens. Not one but two Mormons are now vying for the Republican nomination for President. Mitt Romney was edged out by
John McCain in 2008, but he paved the way for voters accepting a Mormon when he travelled to Texas to sooth the doubters, echoing John Kennedy’s speech 50 years earlier on Catholicism. In fact, Mr Romney downplayed his Mormon faith, emphasising the ‘common creed of moral convictions’ shared by all Christian churches in America.

And now the more moderate Jon Huntsman Jr, until recently Barack Obama’s ambassador to China, has thrown his hat in the Presidential ring and, suddenly, the press has realised that the Senate is led by Mormon Harry Reid and 15 Mormons serve in the US Congress. Mormons are in ascendance. It’s the fourth-largest denomination in America with six million members and 14 million worldwide.
More surprising than two Mormons running for the Presidency, however, is The Book of Mormon, the new musical on Broadway produced by the same team who created South Park. The satire about two Mormon missionaries in Uganda swept the board recently with nine Tony awards.

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It may be opening the lens too far, but I think Americans will be more accepting because Mormons are the fiscal conservatives from Heaven. Members tithe one-tenth of their income to their church, which has an estimated net worth of $30 billion, a sanctified multi-national organisation described as ‘the General Electric of American Religion’. It might be rash to predict that Mormons will soon be influencing the broader culture in America, but stranger things have happened. You read it here first.

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