Mitt Romney hoped to be the Mormon JFK. Instead, he will now go down in the history books as the Mormons’ Al Smith — the Roman Catholic who was nominated for the presidency by the Democratic Party in 1928, but lost to Calvin Coolidge in part because of anti-Catholic prejudice.
But I’m not interested in how long it will be before we elect our first Mormon president. I’m more interested in the so-called “Mormon Moment,” and what the end of Mitt Romney’s political career means for the place of Mormons in American culture. With Romney (and his ubiquitous political ads) out of the spotlight, will the Latter-day Saints now fade from the national stage? Will Americans forget about their odd Mormon neighbors and move on to lambasting and lampooning someone else?
The most instructive comparison here is not Al Smith, but rather Mitt Romney’s own father. As I discussed in a previous post, George Romney’s presidential bid in the mid-1960s came at the end of another American Mormon moment. From approximately the end of World War II until the mid-1960s, Mormons were in many quarters embraced as part of America’s Judeo-Christian community. The confluence of Mormon accommodation to American culture and American embrace of this self-identified Christian group in solidarity against godless Soviet communism brought Mormons and their non-Mormon fellow citizens together, and during this period the Saints were celebrated for their pioneering heritage, their family values, and their contemporary patriotism. Eisenhower appointed Mormons as his Treasurer and Secretary of Agriculture—that Secretary of Agriculture, then-Apostle Ezra Taft Benson, even led the Cabinet in prayer to open their first meeting.
George Romney rode this wave of good feeling into the Governor’s mansion in Michigan in 1962, and was quickly mentioned as a possible contender for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination. He didn’t run in ’64, but by 1965 it was clear that he would seek his party’s nomination for the 1968 election—and goodwill toward Mormons evaporated. In December 1965, the New York Times ran a three-part exposé on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the first installment of which appeared on the front page. The series argued that the Church was a corporate, top-down organization in which believers unquestioningly obeyed the leadership’s dictates in social, economic, and political matters as well as in their spiritual lives. Journalist Wallace Turner was particularly disturbed by what he regarded as the Church’s racist policy on African Americans in the priesthood. But most of all, he wanted readers to understand that George Romney was a Mormon, and because — as Turner saw it — Mormons always obeyed the leadership of their Church, if Romney were elected then the Church could effectively govern the nation .
George Romney’s run for the presidency didn’t create Mormonism’s public image problem in the mid-1960s, nor did his religion cost him the nomination. In fact, he remained prominent in national politics for more than two decades after abandoning the presidential race, most notably as Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. But Romney’s run came at the very end of the period of Mormonism and American culture’s greatest accommodation to one another. But as American culture liberalized and began to embrace its ever-growing diversity in the 1960s, the Mormons didn’t change — in fact, as Armand Mauss has shown, they retrenched and reasserted their differences from other Americans culturally and religiously  — and their white, clean-cut, patriotic, traditional family-oriented image quickly came to seem anachronistic and, even further, opposed to equal rights for groups like women and African Americans .
But what really doomed the Mormons in the popular imagination in the late 20th century was the deep divide that developed between the right and the left in American culture, both religiously and politically (and sometimes both at the same time). As Americans fought their culture wars, Mormonism became a football between the two ends of the spectrum: conservatives were willing to make common cause with the Saints politically, but as the religious right became more and more deeply intertwined with conservative politics, Mormons suffered from the widespread evangelical conviction that their religion was a cult. At the other end of the political and social spectrum, more liberal Americans who otherwise celebrated diversity condemned the Saints for their political conservatism. The Mormon image was thus punted back and forth as a convenient straw man for the ills that Americans of all stripes saw in the wider culture. The Saints were routinely depicted as violent, sexually repressed and oppressive, and not only religiously wrong but also fanatical . But perhaps most importantly, they were routinely depicted. After the end of the mid-century Mormon moment, Mormons didn’t disappear from the culture — their image just shifted in an extremely negative direction.
So what will happen now, if our own Mormon moment has truly ended? I don’t hope, as I know some people do, for Mormons to fade out of the national spotlight entirely — because that hasn’t really ever happened in the Saints’ nearly 200-year history. I would like to hope that we’ve learned something about Mitt Romney’s faith simply by virtue of the interest raised by his long presence on the national scene. I hope for the majority of depictions going forward to be of Mormons as real, multi-dimensional people, and not simply as mindless zealots or lovable buffoons. But I don’t think that’s likely. First and foremost, Americans aren’t particularly good at depicting religions — particularly non-Protestant religions — in fair and/or nuanced ways. Thus the last Mormon moment was succeeded by decades of simplistic, ill-informed, and often demeaning or outright negative images of the Saints — many of which were produced in just the last decade. These representations demonstrate that, in spite of 30 years’ worth of prominent, positive images at mid-century, Americans learned very little about their Mormon neighbors’ religion. But that lack of knowledge was no barrier to frequent depictions of Latter-day Saints as non-Mormon Americans imagined them to be.
 Wallace Turner, “Mormons Gain Despite Tensions: Liberals Are Stirred by Church Curb on Negro Members; Right-Wing Activity and Polygamy Also Cause Concern,” December 27, 1965; Turner, “Mormon Stand on Negroes Poses Problem for Romney If He Decides to Run for President: Church Prejudice Would Be an Issue,” December 28, 1965; Turner, “Mormon Tithes Support Worldwide Proselyting, and Membership Keeps Growing: Financial Health of Church Strong,” December 29, 1965.
 The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
 In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, both The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune focused significant attention on the Church’s exclusion of black men from the priesthood, and on the Saints’ vocal and organized opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
 For just a few examples in each category, see:
Violence: William Wise’s 1976 book Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Legend and a Monumental Crime; the substantial media coverage of forger Mark Hoffman’s infamous 1985 murders; Charles Bronson’s 1988 film Messenger of Death; or Jon Krakauer’s 2003 bestseller Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith.
Sexual oppression and repression: Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1992 and 1993); Deborah Laake’s bestselling memoir Secret Ceremonies: A Mormon Woman’s Intimate Diary of Marriage and Beyond (1994).
Wrong religion: The most prominent example is the film The Godmakers (1982). See also The Mormon Puzzle, produced by the Southern Baptist Convention in preparation for their 1998 annual meeting in Salt Lake City; or, even more recently, comedian Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous (2008).