The New (Non-Mormon) Politics of Mormon Persecution

In “Why Ann Stayed Home,” McKay Coppins of Buzzfeed offered his intervention into the reignited Mommy Wars.

Coppins is a Latter-day Saint. Let me rephrase this in American Argot: Coppins is a Mormon. I repeat this fact because for some odd reason, it became a point of debate in what has followed.

Last week, DNC advisor Hillary Rosen made unsophisticated remarks to Anderson Cooper about Romney’s efforts to solve his “women problem.” Romney has publicly appointed wife as his chief advisor to the concerns of women voters. According to the Romneys, this election season, women care almost exclusively about the economy, and job creation in particular (read: they don’t care about contraception or abortion, a point that of the women voters Romney is courting would question).

In an interview with Cooper on his nightly CNN broadcast, Rosen questioned Mrs. Romney’s expertise on the plight of working women in this beleaguered economy. Rosen insisted that the mother of five grown and successful Romney scions “has never actually worked a day in her life.”

Of course, Rosen should have added the phrase “outside the home” to her summary of Mrs. Romney’s professional résumé. Rosen quickly apologized. But the words—and the incriminating video clip—became part of the historical record of this presidential season. And in the week that has followed, the Romney campaign has pounced on Rosen’s remarks, claiming that they reflect a Democratic meme that devalues the contributions stay-at-home-moms make to the nation’s economic health (a claim that has earned the Romney campaign “Two Pinocchios” from the Post’s “Fact Checker”).

For his part, Coppins wanted to shift the debate about Ann Romney and her in-home career away from family economics (the very wealthy Ann Romney could make the choice to stay at home, while most American families need two incomes to stay afloat). The “why” of Ann’s decision, according to Coppins, was as much about Mormonism as it was about money. He speculates that even if Mitt were just a middle-class schoolteacher Ann would have likely also “foregone a career.”

That’s because for many Latter-day Saint women, staying at home to raise children is less a lifestyle choice than religious one — a divinely-appreciated sacrifice that brings with it blessings, empowerment, and spiritual prestige.

There is mixed evidence that Mormonism (at least as practiced outside of Utah) contributes to increased rates of Mormon moms staying at home. But without question, many Mormon couples follow the Church’s explicit teachings that make motherhood, and in particular motherhood qua a woman’s career, a religious mitzvah, if not wajib. The 1995 LDS doctrinal “Family: A Proclamation to the World” describes gender roles as divinely designed: “fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.”

As a Mormon, Coppins (yes, again he’s a Mormon!), knows this culture—he also knows the right experts to talk to about Mormon gender roles. For his article, Coppins called Dialogue’s Kristine Haglund, who has both a personal and scholarly purchase on these issues. (Full disclosure here: Haglund is a close friend and Coppins is a colleague.)

Like Ann Romney, Haglund is a Mormon woman who sacrificed career ambitions to stay home to raise three children, and did so in the Romneys’ own hometown of Belmont, MA. Haglund told Coppins that many young, stay-at-home Mormon mothers, especially those without the Romneys’ resources, aren’t actually “at home” during large parts of the weekday. They are at their wards, which Haglund describe as a “hub” of Mormon motherhood activity, participating in “playgroups” and “babysitting co-ops.” Haglund also suggested that the fact that these women are doing something that they feel is at once “righteous, as well as unpopular,” especially in the broader, post-feminist American culture, gives meaning to their days of motherhood, which are, according to Haglund, often “tedious” and “excruciatingly lonely.”

I think that Haglund is right. There is something inherent to Mormon culture that validates motherhood, and this validation manifests, in part, against the perception (the reality of which is, I believe, a matter of more debate) that the non-Mormon “world” devalues motherhood, and by extension denigrates Mormonism.

From here, let’s move away form the Mommy Wars. Instead let’s look at this “Mormons” versus the “world” mentality, which Haglund’s comments point to.

Like the ancient Israelites from whom they spiritually (and some believe genetically) descend, Mormons believe that evidence of their righteousness manifests in persecution. Early on in the Book of Mormon, God reveals to the “Israel” of the latter-days: “for behold, I have refined thee, I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction (1 Nephi 20:10). “Affliction,” especially by the world’s gentile “Babylonians,” only serves to perfect the saints, preparing their souls and their society for Christ’s return. From the LDS Church’s inception, Mormon prophets have continuously taught their followers that you know that God is with you when the world is against you. On March 20, 1839, during his months of incarceration in Missouri’s Liberty Jail, Joseph Smith recorded the revelation:

And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee…if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good (D & C 122: 7).

Most recently, reports have circulated that in February, to a packed house at the Dixie State College LDS Institute, Apostle David Bednar “prophesied that if Mitt Romney is elected the Presidential Candidate, the things of God will be made to look foolish in the media,” and that persecution of the saints will “increase and be more intense than any yet experienced in our lifetime.” The LDS Church has released a statement calling these assertions “attributed to” Elder Bednar “spurious.” (Whatever Elder Bednar said in public, in private LDS staffers working in Temple Square have told me that the Church is preparing for a period of scrutiny not experienced since the Reed Smoot hearings a century ago).

Mormons certainly come by their fear of persecution honestly. No Church has faced the level of persecution by the American state, and by many Americans, than LDS Church has. The great  irony of the responses to Coppins’ post highlights is that some of this persecution mentality has rubbed off on non-Mormon supporters of Romney.

It took Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post 5 hours and 47 minutes to post her response to Coppins. In her piece entitled, “Is it Open Season on Mormonism?” (as in “hunting season,” I imagine) Rubin wrote that she leaves it to her readers to decide whether Coppins’ article was anti-Mormon. Nonetheless, she left little interpretation to chance. Rubin began by asserting that this “season” we will see critics of Romney set their sites on Romney’s faith as a means to shoot the candidate down. According to Rubin, a discourse that asserts that “the Mormon faith is discriminatory and oppressive toward women”—and I’m not convinced that was the message of Coppins’ reporting—is inherently anti-Romney by way of its anti-Mormonism.

Remember my incessant repetition of Coppins’ own Mormon identity? Rubin’s most subtle rhetorical move is to question Coppins’ Mormonness. In the second line of her piece, she writes that Coppins “has identified himself as a Mormon” but hints that Coppins might just be an anti-Mormon in saint’s clothing, or at least a self-hating Mormon who is willing to “impugn and smear” his own faith to score political points.

Over at the website Evangelicals for Mitt, the shifting boundaries of who can rightfully claim “Mormon identity” went even further. Charles Mitchell praised Coppins’ article, calling it “by no means a hatchet job” but instead “a reasonable effort by a journalist who is an outsider to a community to convey what that community believes.” Mitchell observes Coppins observing Mormonism like an “Earthling detailing breathlessly what a strange group of extraterrestrial conduct lives that are clearly, well, alien.” The aliens here are Mormons, but in this political season also include the growing number of conservatives (evangelicals like Mitchell, Jews like Rubin) who will back Romney. As Mitchell’s headline makes clear, with Romney as the nominee, “We’re All Aliens Now.”

The fact that Mitchell is not aware of Coppins’ LDS affiliation isn’t that revealing. Coppins doesn’t identify himself as Mormon in the piece or elsewhere at Buzzfeed. What is revealing is Mitchell’s assumption that a Mormon could not possibly be behind any analysis of Mormonism in 2012, even one Mitchell praises as “fair.” Yet still more revealing (and a bit bizarre) is the new affiliation of non-Mormons (including some former anti-Mormons) with Mormonism, especially with the legacy of Mormon persecution. Romney’s candidacy has led to the beginning machinations of a conflation of conservative theology and economics with the LDS Church. And members of this new “church” expect to attacks, attacks that many will see as affirmation of the righteousness of their cause.

For Mitchell and for Rubin, Coppins’ piece announces “open season” on Mormonism. For me, this episode announces “open season” on anyone covering Mormonism. And for members of this community, we’ll know that we are right(eous) when we are the targets of slings and arrows from both sides of the political divide.

 

  • David

    I am a Mormon man; a fifth generation Mormon who grew up in a household dominated by my stay-at-home mother and my six older sisters. My wife, also a fifth generation Mormon, also grew up in a home with her mother not working outside the home, but working side-by-side with her father to support the family business. As a young couple, my wife and I decided that I should see my education through to the PhD level while she stayed home with the kids. Upon entering a doctoral program, however, she decided she wanted to go back to school and earn her Masters. She has been working on and off ever since. I am proud of her and try to work with her as a team in raising our four children. I make a good living, and monetarily my wife is not compelled to work outside the home, but I support her by doing all I can to assist her in her goals at home and at work because I know that if anything were to happen to me that she would need some way to support herself. In today’s economy, she would not be as competitive if she stopped working completely and would not be qualified to make enough money to support herself if something were to happen to me. I love my wife and my children and want to see them all succeed in life. Our two oldest children are serving LDS missions in foreign lands, I am the current leader of our LDS congregation, and my wife teaches seminary. We have not been held back from participation in our church because of our decisions relative to my wife’s work. In fact, I have tried to empower her as sort of an insurance policy, and have picked up the slack at home. I don’t think any less of couples who have made decisions on this issue different than ours. I think it is great that Ann and Mitt Romney have been able to live the life they have chosen. Also, I was not really offended by the opinions of Hilary Rosen. They are probably valid. I think Mrs. Romney should have told us why she is qualified to advise Mitt on women’s issues. I also think that others were a bit quick to be offended by Ms. Rosen’s words, and not respectful enough of her intent. By the way, I am a Mitt Romney supporter and have made generous donations to his campaign.

  • Hejsan

    I have problems with both Mueller’s (i.e. this one) and Coppin’s articles. First, these articles treat Mormons one-dimensionally, as if there exists some sort of scientific model in which Mormons will behave in some sort of solved, predictable way. Just because someone is Mormon, does not mean one can make assumptions. I am a Latter-day Saint and learned well over 25 years ago never to assume anything about another Mormon, just like I would never assume anything about a Jew, Catholic, Baptist, Muslim, etc. Mueller seems to be saying that just because Coppin is Mormon, he’s all Mormon, gets Mormons, and can define Mormons, so therefore read what he writes and think about it, but don’t criticize it because, well, he’s also Mormon! I think Jennifer Rubin made some excellent points, points that may have altered Coppin’s article had he discussed his ideas with her before publishing. Also, Mueller made some errors regarding Rosen- she did not apologize “quickly”- if you can categorize her responses as apologies. Last, I don’t get why Mueller seems surprised that non-Mormons are touchy about the “mormon” thing and touchy about perceived biases against Mormons. From where I stand, Mormons are the last religious group that society feels very comfortable laughing at (ex. “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway). Knowing this, people who have no problem with Mormonism and do support Romney are very likely just as sensitive to “anti-Mormon” messages as a Latter-day Saint. Maybe from a different vantage point and different context, but parallel sensitivities. I’m surprised Mueller is surprised.

  • http://www.religionandpolitics.org Max Mueller

    Hejsan–
    Thanks for your fruitful comments. I’m not surprised that Mormons are touchy about anti-Mormonism in the media. As I recognize in the piece, Mormons come by their Mormonism qua persecuted (chosen) people identity honestly (from Jackson County in 1833 to the pages of the NY Times on occasion this year). I’m observing an interesting trend in how non-Mormons are appropriating this persecution identity. I’m also suggesting that it is difficult to say anything about Mormonism this season without it being politicized (because of other pieces I’ve published elsewhere (http://www.slate.com/articles/life/faithbased/2012/03/sally_hemings_mormon_and_married_to_jefferson_proxy_sealings_raise_difficult_questions_for_lds_church_.htm), I’ve been called both an anti-Mormon and a Mormon apologist (even Mormon in gentile clothing, so to speak). I’m neither.)
    As for making generalities about Mormonism–you’re right. Each Mormon has her own set of beliefs, ways of seeing the world, ritual life etc. I quote leading (prophetic) voices/texts in Mormon history that have, without question, shaped many Mormons individualized worldviews. Am I wrong in thinking that perhaps more than any other tradition, what is said by prophets of God (or written in scriptures) is taken seriously by many “everyday” saints, and often incorporated into their lives?
    As for Rosen, she apologized the next day and did so publicly. I’m not making any judgments about the sufficiency of this apology. But I do think it came “quickly.”

  • Dan Maloy

    Article quote: “Mormons certainly come by their fear of persecution honestly. No Church has faced the level of persecution by the American state, and by many Americans, than LDS Church has.”

    And yet, when Mormons point to comments like Ms. Rosen’s, you claim that is not bigotry towards the LSD church, or in this case, the VALUES of the LDS church, in the slightest.

    Oh, the irony…..

    Plus, you’re not telling the truth. Ms. Rosen was most certainly NOT quick to apologize about her original condescending comment. She doubled down on it when she had every opportunity to back away from it. Even when she did finally ‘apologize’, you’d have to be an idiot to honestly believe she would have said the apologetic words if she hadn’t been leaned on so hard by those on the left to do so. (And, no, it wasn’t demands from the right that got her to say she was sorry….)

    • Dan Maloy

      P.S. –
      Coppins article was SUPERB!!!
      He did a MARVELOUS job explaining Ann Romney’s motivation to be a stay-at-home mom.

  • http://www.religionandpolitics.org Max Mueller

    Hi Dan–
    We are trying–against all odds–to create a civil and still critical (in both senses of the word) space where Mormonism can be discussed during this unprecedented period. I would invite you to continue to participate in our discussions here but do so in a way that engages the questions at the heart of our posts and, with all due respect, in a manner that checks the sarcasm at the door.
    To parse through your comments, I think you raise two questions. First, you find it ironic that I am surprised that Mormons would find it on course with Mormon history that the Church is being maligned in 2012, in part (or in a majority share) due to Romney’s presidential aspirations. You ask then why would I find the objections to Rosen’s comments that surprising. As I state in the article and in my response to Hejan, I don’t find them surprising in the least. What I do find interesting (and perhaps novel) is that there is a growing, and influential, set of non-Mormons who are crying foul to what they perceive as attacks on the faith (My piece analyzed how a prominent Jew, Jennifer Rubin, and a prominent Evangelical organization (Evangelicals for Mitt) assert what I’m calling a “non-Mormon” politic of Mormon persecution.) In other words, non-Mormons are claiming a “Mormon” identity (if Mormonism here is equated to persecution, and I’m not advocating that we reduce it to that)).
    As for me not telling the truth, Ms Rosen apologized quickly. You might not find her apology unacceptable, but she did apologize. And while certainly the Obama administration was not happy that Rosen reignited the “Mommy Wars” the Romney Campaign deployed Rosen’s comments to win several news cycles, and did so with a certain glee.
    Finally, I’m not sure how to take your PS. I think you were being sarcastic. But your sarcasm (if it was that) provides an opportunity to make the point, once again, that in this election season any study of Mormonism in the news is either going to be seen as apologetics or expose. In my reading, Coppins’ article was neither. It was an attempt (by a Mormon) to explain to the non-Mormon world that Ann and Mitt were likely motivated to have Ann stay home based on certain Mormon cultural expectations (and strong direction from Church leaders).


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