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.


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