By Jacquie ItsinesCopy Editor/Staff Writer
The Cultural Center Theater played host to a near-capacity crowd on Thursday, Sept. 27, as members of the Hofstra community heard San Diego State University English professor, recent author and devout Mormon Joanna Brooks speak about faith’s role in the American political system.
Brooks’ lecture, “Mormon Girl Goes to the Elections: A Candid Discussion of Faith in American Politics,” provided a history of Mormonism in the United States and examined why Mormon Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is sometimes reluctant to thoroughly discuss his religious background.
“I thought the lecture was wonderful,” said Jenny Hart, a senior majoring in journalism and global studies. “[Brooks] showed that Mormons are just as American as the rest of the nation is and what they had to go through to achieve their version of the American dream.”
Romney and Brooks’ shared faith, Mormonism, is a branch of American Protestantism founded in the 1930s. There are now 6 million Mormons in the United States and 13 million worldwide, but the religion endured a horrific past prior to achieving such a following.
Mormons were attacked and ridiculed for their deviations from Christianity, particularly for their participation in polygamy, the practice of having more than one spouse at a time. Harassment and extermination orders caused Mormon pioneers to abandon their original establishments in New York and head west in search of refuge. They set themselves apart from society and grew to distrust outsiders for fear of attracting unfriendly attention, adopting the slogan “mind your own business,” according to Brooks.
Brooks cited this historical tension as the principal reason for Romney’s sparse discussion of his faith and noticeable awkwardness in front of large crowds. She said that it is difficult for many Mormons to speak openly about their faith due to a divided sense of self that they feel in public as a minority, but it is even more difficult for Romney, because he is obligated to put the tender devotion of his life on display for over 314 million American citizens. He is responsible for projecting an image of Mormon perfection to the entire U.S. population.
“To think that Romney is as private as he is because of his faith softens my view of him,” said senior English major Elyse Suter. “[The lecture] gave me a more sensitive opinion.”
A handful of familiar athletes, movie stars and authors—including Jimmer Fredette of the Sacramento Kings, actor Aaron Eckhart and infamous Twilight-author Stephenie Meyer—are of the faith, but Mitt Romney is the first major figure to enter the vast public sphere as a Mormon.
Mormons are proud and protective of Romney and his political success, Brooks said. At the same time, they feel as though he may be relinquishing the opportunity to gain widespread support for Mormonism by neglecting to expand upon its roots in his campaign speeches.
Sophomore accounting major Matthew Langenfeld believes that the politicians’ discussion of faith begins and ends with those campaign speeches.
“The political candidates are not as involved in their faith as they seem to be,” he said. “They use it as a political device to gain those who they cannot reach otherwise.”
Nevertheless, Brooks expressed the disappointment that she and other Mormons could not help but feel when they heard that Romney would speak of his religion at length during the Republican National Convention in August and were let down.
“The pioneer story is important to us,” Brooks said in her lecture. “It’s our exodus. We wanted to see just one pioneer wagon roll across the screen.”
While Brooks’ lecture suggested that she and other Mormons believe that Romney should use his national platform to improve the reputation of Mormonism, Suter prefers that political candidates take a more secular approach to campaigning.
“Faith cannot be separated from a person, whether they’re running for office or not,” Suter said. “Neither Romney nor Obama needs to be extremely open about their faith. It’s any individual’s choice to be open about faith, but if it does not affect policy, we should not deal with it.”
Brooks does not see strong markings of faith in Romney’s policy agenda, but she does see a way in which faith can enable an alternative approach to political decision-making.
“We usually only think of religion in terms of contraception and abortion and gay marriage,” she said. “But I think we should also consider spirituality and religion in economic policy. There’s no question that faith impacts the world and its leaders. The important thing is that leaders listen to others as well.”