There are nearly seven million Mormons in America. This is the number the Mormons themselves use. It's not huge. Seven million is barely 2 percent of the country's population. It is the number of people who subscribe to Better Homes and Gardens magazine. London boasts seven million people. So does San Francisco. It's a million more people than live in the state of Washington; a million less than in the state of Virginia. It's so few, it's the same number as were watching the January 24, 2012, Republican debate.
In fact, worldwide, there are only about fourteen million Mormons. That's fourteen million among a global population just reaching seven billion. Fourteen million is the population of Cairo or Mali or Guatemala. It's approximately the number of people who tune in for the latest hit show on network television every week. Fourteen million Americans ate Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant in 2011. That's how few fourteen million is.
Yet in the first decade or so of the new millennium, some members of the American media discovered the Mormons and began covering them as though the Latter-day Saints had just landed from Mars. It was as though Utah was about to invade the rest of the country. It was all because of politics and pop culture, of course. Mitt Romney and John Huntsman were in pursuit of the White House. Glenn Beck was among the nation's most controversial news commentators. Stephenie Meyer had written the astonishingly popular Twilight series about vampires. Matt Stone and Trey Parker had created the edgy South Park cartoon series--which included a much- discussed episode about Mormons--and then went on to create the blatantly blasphemous and Saint-bashing Broadway play The Book of Mormon. It has become one of the most successful productions in American theater history.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen Mormons sat in the US Congress, among them Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader. Mormons led JetBlue, American Express, Marriott, Novell, Deloitte and Touche, Diebold, and Eastman Kodak. Management guru Stephen Covey made millions telling them how to lead even better. There were Mormons commanding battalions of US troops and Mormons running major US universities. There were so many famous Mormons, in fact, that huge websites were launched just to keep up with it all. Notables ranged from movie stars like Katherine Heigl to professional athletes to country music stars like Gary Allan to reality television contestants and even to serial killers like Glenn Helzer, whose attorney argued that the Saints made him the monster he was. The media graciously reminded the public that Mormon criminals were nothing new, though: Butch Cassidy of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fame was also a Mormon, they reported.
Most media coverage treated this "Mormon Moment" as though it was just that: the surprising and unrelated appearance of dozens of Mormons on the national stage--for a moment. More than a few commentators predicted it would all pass quickly. This new Mormon visibility would lead to new scrutiny, they said, and once the nation got reacquainted with tales of "holy underwear" and multiple wives and Jewish Indians and demonized African Americans and a book printed on gold plates buried in upstate New York, it would all go quiet again and stay that way for a generation. In the meantime, reruns of HBO's Big Love and The Learning Channel's Sister Wives would make sure Mormon themes didn't die out completely.
What most commentators did not understand was that their "Mormon Moment" was more than a moment, more than an accident, and more than a matter of pop culture and fame alone. The reality was--and is--that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has reached critical mass. It is not simply that a startling number of Mormons have found their way onto America's flat-screen TVs and so brought visibility to their religion. It is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints has reached sufficient numbers--and has so permeated every level of American society on the strength of its religious value--that prominent politicians, authors, athletes, actors, newscasters, and even murderers are the natural result, in some cases even the intended result. Visible, influential Mormons aren't outliers or exceptions. They are fruit of the organic growth of their religion.
In 1950, there were just over a million Mormons in the world. Most of these were located in the Intermountain West of the United States, a region of almost lunar landscape between the Rocky Mountains to the East and the Cascades and Sierra Nevada Mountains to the West. The religion was still thought of as odd by most Americans. There had been famous Mormons like the occasional US Senator or war hero, but these were few and far between. There had even been a 1940 Hollywood movie entitled Brigham Young that told the story of the Saints' mid-1800s trek from Illinois to the region of the Great Salt Lake. Its producers worked hard to strain out nearly every possible religious theme, a nod to the increasingly secular American public. Though it starred heavyweights like Vincent Price and Tyrone Power, the movie failed miserably, even in Utah. Especially in Utah.
Then, in 1951, a man named David O. McKay became the "First President" of the Latter-day Saints and inaugurated a new era. He was the Colonel Harlan Sanders of Mormonism. He often wore white suits, had an infectious laugh, and under- stood the need to appeal to the world outside the Church. It was refreshing. Most LDS presidents had either been polygamist oddballs or stodgy old men in the eyes of the American public. McKay was more savvy, more media aware. He became so popular that film legend Cecil B. DeMille asked him to consult on the now classic movie The Ten Commandments.
Empowered by his personal popularity and by his sense that an opportune moment had come, McKay began refashioning the Church's image. He also began sharpening its focus. His famous challenge to his followers was, "Every Member a Missionary!" And the faithful got busy. It only helped that Ezra Taft Benson, a future Church president, was serving as the nation's secretary of agriculture under President Eisehower. This brought respectability. It also helped that George Romney was the revered CEO of American Motors Corporation and that he would go on to be the governor of Michigan, a candidate for president of the United States, and finally a member of Richard Nixon's cabinet. This hinted at increasing power. The 1950s were good for Mormons.
Then came the 1960s. Like most religions, the LDS took a beating from the counterculture movement, but by the 1970s they were again on the rise. There was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a symbol of Americana when Americana was under siege. There was Mormon Donny Osmond's smile and Mormon Marie Osmond's everything and the three-year run of network television's Donny and Marie in the late 1970s that made words like family, clean, talented, patriotic, and even cute outshine some of the less-endearing labels laid upon the Saints through the years. New labels joined new symbols. A massive, otherworldly, 160,000-square-foot Temple just north of Washington, DC, was dedicated in the 1970s, a symbol of LDS power and permanence for the nation to behold. Always there was the "Every Member a Missionary!" vision beating in each Saintly heart.
By 1984, the dynamics of LDS growth were so fine-tuned that influential sociologist Rodney Stark made the mind- blowing prediction that the Latter-day Saints would have no fewer than 64 million members and perhaps as many as 267 million by 2080.3 It must have seemed possible in those days. In the following ten years, LDS membership exploded from 4.4 million to 11 million. This may be why in 1998 the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Salt Lake City. The Mormons--a misguided cult in the view of most traditional Christians, most Baptists in particular--had to be stopped.
They weren't. Four years after the Baptists besieged Temple Square, the Winter Olympic Games came to Salt Lake City. This was in 2002 and it is hard to exaggerate what this meant to the Latter-day Saints. A gifted Mormon leader, Mitt Romney, rescued the games after a disastrous bidding scandal. A sparkling Mormon city hosted the games. Happy, handsome all-American Mormons attended each event, waving constantly to the cameras and appearing to be--in the word repeatedly used by the press at the time--"normal."
The LDS Church capitalized on it all. It sent volunteers, missionaries, and publicists scurrying to every venue. It hosted grand events for the world press. It made sure that every visitor received a brochure offering an LDS guided tour of the city. Visitors from around the world read these words: "No other place in America has a story to tell like that of Salt Lake City--a sanctuary founded by religious refugees from within the United States' own borders. And none can tell that story better than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
Largely unchallenged, the Mormon narrative prevailed.
What followed was the decade of the new millennium we have already surveyed. Mormons seemed to be everywhere, seemed to be exceptional in nearly every arena, seemed to have moved beyond acceptance by American culture to domination of American culture. At least this was what some feared at the time.
But Mormons did not dominate the country. Far from it. Remember that they were not even 2 percent of the nation's population as of 2012. True, they were visible and successful, well educated and well spoken, patriotic and ever willing to serve. Yet what they had achieved was not domination. It was not a conspiracy either, as some alleged. It was not anything approaching a takeover or even the hope for a takeover
Few observers seemed to be able to explain how this new level of LDS prominence in American society came about. They reached for the usual answers trotted out to account for such occurrences: birth rates, Ronald Reagan's deification of traditional values, the economic boom of the late twentieth century, a more liberal and broadminded society, even the dumbing down of America through television and failing schools. Each of these explanations was found wanting.
The Mormon Machine
The truth lay within Mormonism itself. What the Saints had achieved in the United States was what Mormonism, unfettered and well led, will nearly always produce. This was the real story behind the much-touted "Mormon Moment." The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had risen to unexpected heights in American society because the Mormon religion creates what can benevolently be called a Mormon Machine-- a system of individual empowerment, family investment, local church (ward and stake level) leadership, priesthood government, prophetic enduement, Temple sacraments, and sacrificial financial endowment of the holy Mormon cause.
Plant Mormonism in any country on earth and pretty much the same results will occur. If successful, it will produce deeply moral individuals who serve a religious vision centered upon achievement in this life. They will aggressively pursue the most advanced education possible, understand their lives in terms of overcoming obstacles, and eagerly serve the surrounding society. The family will be of supernatural importance to them, as will planning and investing for future generations. They will be devoted to community, store and save as a hedge against future hardship, and they will esteem work as a religious calling. They will submit to civil government and hope to take positions within it. They will have advantages in this. Their beliefs and their lives in all-encompassing community will condition them to thrive in administrative systems and hierarchies--a critical key to success in the modern world. Ever oriented to a corporate life and destiny, they will prize belonging and unity over individuality and conflict every time.
These hallmark values and behaviors--the habits that distinguish Mormons in the minds of millions of Americans-- grow naturally from Mormon doctrine. They are also the values and behaviors of successful people. Observers who think of the religion as a cult--in the Jim Jones sense that a single, dynamic leader controls a larger body of devotees through fear, lies, and manipulation--usually fail to see this. Mormon doctrine is inviting, the community it produces enveloping and elevating, the lifestyle it encourages empowering in nearly every sense. Success, visibility, prosperity, and influence follow. This is the engine of the Mormon ascent. It is what has attracted so many millions, and it is the mechanism of the Latter-day Saints' impact upon American society and the world.
Mormons make achievement through organizational management a religious virtue. It leads to prosperity, visibility, and power. It should come as no surprise, then, that an American can turn on the evening news after a day of work and find one report about two Mormon presidential candidates, another story about a Mormon finalist on American Idol, an examination of the controversial views of a leading Mormon news commentator, a sports story about what a Mormon lineman does with his "Temple garments" in the NFL, and a celebration of how Mormons respond to crises like Katrina and the BP oil spill, all by a "Where Are They Now?" segment about Gladys Knight, minus the Pips, who has become--of course--a Mormon.
Mormons rise in this life because it is what their religion calls for. Achieving. Progressing. Learning. Forward, upward motion. This is the lifeblood of earthly Mormonism. Management, leadership, and organizing are the essential skills of the faith. It is no wonder that Mormons have grown so rapidly and reached such stellar heights in American culture. And there is much more to come.
Click through the slideshow to see most and least Mormon states in the United States: