POLITICS JUNE 22, 2012
THERE WAS A TIME when it was no fun to be a Mormon in Washington. In 1903, Utah sent a Mormon named Reed Smoot to the U.S. Senate, prompting a series of hearings the following year to decide whether a Mormon should be even permitted to serve in the chamber. The trial had nothing to do with Smoot’s qualifications and everything to do with his strange-seeming faith, in particular its association with polygamy. “It is the Mormon Church that we intend to investigate,” thundered Senator Julius C. Burrows, “and we are going to see that these men obey the law.”
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After three years, 100 witnesses, and 3,500 pages of testimony, Smoot finally prevailed. “I think the Senate should prefer a polygamist who doesn’t ‘polyg’”—Smoot had only one wife—“to a monogamist who doesn’t ‘monog,’” Pennsylvania Senator Boies Penrose reportedly pronounced. For his time, it was a statement of remarkable tolerance.
Over the years, and under the radar, however, the capital has transformed from a place that was openly hostile to Mormons to something of a destination. Recently, I visited the office of Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, one of 15 Mormons in Congress. I mentioned to his press officer—also a Mormon—that I was writing about the culture of Mormons in Washington. “You can’t swing a dead cat in this town without hitting one,” she told me cheerfully. To be a bit more precise, there are 23,000 active members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints in and around the city, and the D.C. area is a magnet for young, single Mormons. The reason for this turns out to be simple: Washington is a town that rewards networking, and Mormons are some of the best networkers around.
MORMONS WILL sometimes tell you they can spot each other via “modar,” but there are spots in the area they tend to gather. Many young and single Mormons have gravitated to “Little Provo,” as Utah transplants call the suburb of Crystal City, Virginia. Other popular hangouts include restaurants like Café Rio in Falls Church (an outpost of a popular Utah-based chain), or the Dairy Godmother in Alexandria—when you don’t drink alcohol or coffee, ice cream parlors become the default meeting spot. Of course, Mormons hang out with non-Mormons, too—as one young man put it, “Not everyone eats green Jell-O salad.” (Utah is said to be the biggest per capita consumer of Jell-O in the nation.) Still, in my conversations with local Mormons—at a study group where attendees read Scripture on a Church-designed iPad app or at a “munch and mingle” where young professionals connected over milk and cookies—a few common themes stood out.
Sterling Jensen, a 34-year-old native of Arizona moved to Washington in 2005 with two clear objectives. “I was interested in working for the government, and I wanted to date Mormon girls,” he told me. His parents connected him with a successful K Street lobbyist and public affairs consultant whom they’d met in a Mormon temple while touring in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, like Mormons everywhere, his local Church assigned him two male “home teachers.” (Women are also assigned two female “visiting teachers.”) Typically, home teachers provide spiritual guidance and help congregants out with practical things like home repairs and minor chores. But, in Washington, home teaching might also include interview practice or advice on the best schools. Jensen’s home teacher, for instance, got him a job as a political analyst in the Middle East for a D.C.-based strategic communications company. He now works for the National Defense University as a researcher and is married to a woman he met in church. Mission accomplished.
One reason that the Mormon network is so strong is that its bonds are fortified by a system of mutual assistance—a system that comes in handy in a town where favors are valuable currency. In addition to a general obligation to help each other out, every member is assigned a “calling”—a volunteer job for the Church such as media relations or Sunday School teaching. The former Republican Senator Robert Bennett, for instance, told me that he served in church assignments alongside a union organizer. Bennett is very conservative, but there was “not a bad word” between them, he said. Sometimes, these duties can forge powerful ties: When Rex Lee, father of Utah Senator Mike Lee, served as Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general, his family’s home teacher was Harry Reid.
The whirl of church duties and compulsory socializing can be time-consuming and not always easy to balance with the long hours of an up-and-coming professional. One churchgoer told me that someone posted a sign at a Virginia church that read, “leave your résumé at the door,” meaning: No shop-talk here. And, for some, there is such a thing as being too connected. General Brent Scowcroft grew up in the Mormon Church, and, while he’s proud of that heritage, he told me that he is no longer an active member. “It’s hard to just go to church,” he explained. “They want to engage you in their social activities. I didn’t want to be bothered, and I didn’t like to turn people down.”
For most Mormons, though, the network remains a powerful asset. When I asked one prominent Republican lobbyist (and a Mormon) if he had any examples of a distinguished Washingtonian humbling himself for the sake of the church, he replied without missing a beat, “I’ve got a picture of Orrin Hatch waist deep in a septic tank.” A Mormon neighbor needed help, he explained, and the senator was only too happy to oblige.
This article appeared in the July 12, 2012 issue of the magazine.