Last week, Ben Smith at Politico reported that the Obama campaign planned to “destroy” Mitt Romney in part by portraying him as “weird.”
The news set off a wave of speculation that weird was, in fact, code for Mormon, and that Obama and team planned to use the word “weird” as a dog-whistle to stoke voters’ antipathies towards Mormonism in 2012.
The news set off a wave of cringes among Mormon politicos as well. Because Mormons do recognize “weird” as a word that sticks to us in the American imagination. In 1995, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley declared in an interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, “We are not a weird people.” Hinckley was eulogized on NPR by Jan Shipps, a leading scholar of Mormonism, as taking the Church from “weird to not-weird.” And I’ve heard plenty of Mormons of all stripes worry out loud about our “weirdness.”
If you wanted to make fun of Romney’s now-well-documented social stiffness and penchant for ill-timed, inappropriate jokes, you could call him “awkward,” “stiff,” “robotic,” “wooden,” or “uncomfortable.” All of that would be perfectly fine. But “weird” (a word that has its roots in the Old English “wyrd” for “fate” or destiny”) has always carried a tinge of the occult or otherworldly.
And that’s why we all heaved a sigh of relief when David Axelrod came on television to threaten to fire any campaign staff who used the word “weird” to describe Romney.
Still, regardless of the Obama campaign pledge not to play dog-whistle politics with Romney’s religion, the question remains for many Mormons: what makes us so “weird” to the rest of the American public?
It’s a subject that Mormons will have to face and learn to engage directly in the twenty-first century. If in the nineteenth century our cultural strategy was to remove ourselves physically from the American mainstream by physical emigration, our twentieth-century strategy was to cultivate an aggressively friendly and “mainstream” public presentation in appearance, conduct, and speech, while maintaining a robust and defining sense of our difference within the precincts of our hearts and minds. But the tension between our mainstream self-presentation—the blonde Ken-doll phenotype many ascribe to ethnic Mormons (descended from 19th-century English and Scandinavian emigrants), our conservative politics, the carefully crafted and highly standardized language Mormons learn to use to both protect our beliefs and describe them to non-Mormons—and the radical innovativeness of Mormon beliefs in living prophets, eternal marriages, new books of scripture creates its own problems for the Mormon public image, a sense of radical disconnection between exterior and interior. And that sense of disconnection, of the public not quite matching the private, is only exacerbated by the insularity of Mormon communities, the secrecy of Mormon temple rites, and the privacy of faith practices like wearing sacred undergarments. Our difference—it’s there—under our clothes, just out of sight.
Mormons learn to manage this balancing act of living in one world and thinking in another every day. But most of us don’t quite know how to talk about it. In fact, despite our zeal for proselytization, most observant Mormons are a lot like Mitt Romney when it comes to talking about Mormon specifics: Don’t say anything inflammatory. Don’t reveal anything that would open you to ridicule. Keep it brief. Accentuate the positive. Be nice. Go home.
If Mitt Romney and the rest of us learned to talk more forthrightly about our difference—to own the fact that the literalism, newness, and grandeur of orthodox Mormon belief does in fact make us a little peculiar on the American landscape—I bet that the word “weird” would lose a lot of its sting for Mormons.
But I don’t expect that to happen by November 2012.