BOISE, Idaho—Maybe Napoleon Dynamite was the tetherball-playing Trojan Horse.
Folks in Mormon Country recognized the film’s Happy Hands Club and not-quite-cursing swear words—and the Deseret Industries thrift store where Napoleon bought that sweet brown suit.
But as it became a nationwide cult hit, the 2003 movie filmed in the eastern Idaho town of Preston didn’t flaunt the Mormonism of its star, its director or virtually its entire cast of Southeast Idaho extras. It never even came up.
A couple of years later, though, Jane Fonda herself is playing the stern grandmother of a flaky So-Cal teenager. Her character just happens to live in an Idaho stronghold of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Now, one of the leading Republican candidates for president, Mitt Romney, is a member of the LDS Church. So is Brandon Flowers, the lead singer in one of the country’s hottest rock bands, The Killers.
Even HBO, the network that brought us “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” has turned its cameras toward the church. Many believers are wary of the polygamous themes of “Big Love,” which follows a man and his three wives from a sect that broke with the LDS Church when the Mormons condemned polygamy more than a century ago.
The main characters themselves aren’t Mormons, but the normal, real-life folks that surround them are members of the LDS Church living along Utah’s Wasatch Front—in a sense, “Big Love” is the first program to show Mormons as the mainstream.
Mormons are “in,” but that attention has brought an at-times-uncomfortable spotlight and a renewed pressure to maintain the uniqueness that has defined the religion since it started in 1800s America.
This spring, PBS broadcast a two-part documentary called “The Mormons,” which detailed the history of the religion and its beliefs. Responses to the program on the church’s official Web site showed that many believers thought it was largely fair, but with too strong a focus on the past practice of polygamy and the massacre at Mountain Meadows, a once-little-known attack by a group of Mormons on Sept. 11, 1857, that left more than 100 Arkansas emigrants dead.
Soon, that massacre will be the focus of a Hollywood film called “September Dawn,” which will be released in August with a controversial implication: that Brigham Young himself ordered the attack.
That’s an accusation church historians have disputed for decades.
But despite a few hiccups in its 200-year history, so far, the church has welcomed the attention.
“I wouldn’t say it’s uncomfortable—we’re very open,” said T. Craig Rowe, a mortgage broker who works as the public relations director for the church in Idaho. “We’re grateful to get to tell our story firsthand.”
Mormons like to call themselves “a peculiar people,” a phrase that highlights their disciplined lifestyle choices and their religious beliefs that offer glory after death.
Believers are proud of that phrase, said Brady Udall, a novelist and Boise State University creative writing professor.
“But at the same time, there’s a definite desire to be in the mainstream,” he said.
Udall and his wife come from LDS families—his late uncles are the politicos Stewart and Morris Udall. He is proud of his faith, although he doesn’t go to church as much as many in his family.
As a whole, though, Udall said he thinks the church is too young to comfortably confront all of its past—in particular, polygamy and Mountain Meadows.
“There are things that are just freaking us out,” Udall said. “And I think that’s what it is—our religion is just 200 years old.”
The attention has great political implications, too.
Even Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, a lapsed Mormon himself, wondered a few months ago whether Republicans and the rest of the country would be ready to accept a president who is also a member of the LDS Church.
On the late-night talk show circuit, Romney’s religion has become fair game. And almost every joke—documented by About.com—plays on polygamy, which current church leaders and followers disavow.
“Apparently, Romney is planning on winning the soccer mom vote by marrying all of them,” NBC’s Conan O’Brien quipped.
Stephen Colbert, in his faux-conservative Comedy Central persona, was even darker: “The word `polygamy,’ of course, comes from the Greek `poly’ meaning multiple and `gamy’ meaning reasons not to vote for Mitt Romney.”
For the record, Romney’s one marriage is noticeably fewer than the number some of his high-profile GOP opponents have entered into over the years.
From Udall’s own uncles—both served in Congress, and Stewart Udall was a U.S. secretary of the interior—to Romney’s father, 1968 presidential candidate George Romney, and Idaho notables like Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis and his House counterpart, Mike Moyle, members of the church have been successful in politics.
All the media attention on Romney’s religion seems like too much for some Idahoans.
“It seems to me they’re making something out of nothing,” said Daniel Hennis, a Meridian father of two, warehouse worker and active church member.
“If we know (Romney’s) a Mormon, then we know he’s got certain values, but that’s about it,” Hennis said. “Those values may not directly translate into political positions.”
Hennis said he can see that in his own family. He has an uncle who is a liberal judge in California, an Idaho relative he describes as the “Randy Weaver kind” of conservative, and everything in between.
“I’ve got the whole spectrum in front of me,” he said. “But they’re all active in the LDS Church.”
If you want further proof, former Idaho Congressman Richard Stallings, a Mormon Democrat, just Friday criticized Romney after the candidate’s visit to Idaho Falls.
Still, Hennis can see what Udall is saying: The church and its members want to be both singular and accepted.
On the church’s official Web site, officials try to explain this dichotomy.
“If the term `mainstream’ means that Latter-day Saints are increasingly viewed as a contributing, relevant and significant part of society—particularly in the United States, where there are now some 6 million members—then, of course, the answer is `yes,’ the site states. “If being described as `mainstream’ means the Church loses the very distinctiveness of the beliefs that are at the heart of its message, the answer is different.”
For Hennis, this line is more immediate. He likes to read and write science fiction, for example, but shuns sci-fi visions of the future that don’t jibe with his beliefs.
It comes down to blending “normal life” with “LDS life,” he said. LDS life includes a strict moral code, and no alcohol, coffee or tea.
“We all want to be part of society, to have a job, earn money, do all the things normal people do,” he said. “But we live in a religion that has certain requirements. You try to live in them both. It’s like you’re an amphibian.”
The pressure to be accepted by the rest of America, has to be even greater for Romney, who is trying to sway the country to embrace a member of a religion once outlawed in many states.
“I’m sure it’s on his mind,” Hennis said. “I think he makes sure people understand he is a citizen first running for office.”
Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, a Mormon, said people in Washington can make that distinction. Thanks in part to Udall’s uncles and Romney’s father, members of Congress have become comfortable working with Mormons.
“I have never had any difficulty,” he said. “I’ve never had any hints of bias or discrimination.”
On the campaign trail—which brought Romney back to Idaho Falls for the second time on Friday—Romney focuses on conservative family values that his faith shares with many Catholics and Protestants. And he’s been known to make his own polygamy jokes, too. But in interviews, like one on ABC’s “Nightline” in January, Romney says he is serious about his beliefs:
“I’m proud of my faith,” he said. “It’s part of my heritage. I think the American people respect individuals of faith. That’s the kind of person they want to lead the country.”
When he talks about his Mormonism, Brandon Flowers, lead singer of the rock band The Killers, likes to quote Bob Dylan.
“Bob Dylan said it best—you can’t be Jewish and be cool,” he’s said in these or similar words in interviews all over the world. “And you can’t be a Mormon and be cool. But I’m trying my best.”
But along with the Osmonds and Gladys Knight, Flowers is one of few prominent Mormon artists of any genre in the country—a shortcoming that concerns Udall, especially considering how well-educated church members are as a whole. But this could hint at the next stage of acceptance.
In early American films and novels, black characters were built around their race. Today, characters can just be black without that meaning anything, Udall said. Only as more Mormon artists and writers emerge will that eventually take place for Mormons.
“Art,” Udall said, “is the way to do it.”