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.

 

  • mapman

    I could be way off on this, but it feels to this Mormon like people are only defending Mormonism when it is politically useful for them not out of real concern. It is especially weird when non-Mormons call out an article that I’m pretty sure most LDS people would have been fine with.

    • http://Patheos Mark

      I agree with your comment. I read the article and WAS “fine” with it and couldn’t undestand Ms. Rubin’s critic except that she must think that the values that we hold dear denegrate women. I thougt the article was fair and described my experience. Until recently, I lived in Sacramento, California and my wife and I chose to have her stay home until the kids were out of school. It was a choice that involved a lot of sacrifice and I would do it all over again as nothing in our life is as important as our children.

  • http://www.kaimipono.net Kaimi

    Excellent summary of a head-scratching series of events, and a good reminder that there’s plenty of overstatement, slant, and misunderstanding on all portions of the political spectrum.

  • DougH

    Mark me down as another Mormon that had not trouble at all, at all, with Coppin’s article and was more than a little surprised at the charge that it was anti-Mormon. Personally, considering the impact statistics show that single and part-time parenting can have on children, I see no reason to be ashamed of the emphasis the Church puts on stay-at-home moms.

  • http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com E B

    I am a Mormon SAHM. While Buzzfeed’s article wasn’t great, it was OK at explaining Mormon women. There are some contextual things left out including the next two sentences of the Family Proclamation, teaching that husband and wife should help each other as equals and individual circumstances may require adaptation. This omission leaves readers to assume that it is wrong for Mormon women to work. At no time have prophets told women they are sinful if they choose to work or need to work. Rather, they teach that family is the priority in our lives – for men and women. I wrote a response myself which you may read at http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com.
    As far as the open season goes, what I believe Mormons are bracing for is the increased visibility and scrutiny of various Church doctrines and policies both past and present. Most media articles out there are marginally accurate and representative of our beliefs, while others leave gaping holes and some are spot on. All this brings more and more attention to the Church and its members. It’s kind of like our privacy has just evaporated. I don’t think this will be a bad thing, and it certainly isn’t bad for people unfamiliar with our faith to learn about all the commonalities we share rather than be fearful of a few differences. I don’t think ‘persecution’ is really on our minds on the whole, since it can’t be anything like when pioneer Mormons were chased out of various state by murderous mobs. At any rate, Mormon.org and mormonnewsroom.org are great resources for fact-checking or for your own enlightenment. Thanks for listening.

  • Matt

    As a Mormon, I have two objections to Mr. Coppins’ article.

    First, why does Mr. Coppins feel justified attributing specific statements of some Mormon leaders to Ann Romney. Why don’t we all just ask Ann what she believes on this topic? In fact, she has told us. She said that she and Mitt both believe that the job a mother does is one of the most important they can do and is far more important than any other work they may do, while simultaneously stating unequivocally that the choices all women make regarding whether to having a career outside the home should be respected.

    The second objection is related to the first. It seems to me that Mr. Coppins is deliberately giving a somewhat restricted picture of Mormon practices and belief on this topic. Mr. Coppins does a pretty good job of giving a sampling of how some Mormon leaders have summarized Mormon beliefs on this topic. However Mr. Coppins surely understands that other Americans–particularly those of other Christian faiths–cannot fully understand Mormon beliefs without tying them back to their scriptural roots, mainly in the Bible. Furthermore, Mr. Coppins completely neglects the changing economic forces influencing gender roles, attributing shifts in Mormon beliefs and practices to “modernization”.

    These and other aspects of Mr. Coppins’ piece suggest that he is writing from and to a particular ideological perspective that other Mormons may very well perceive as hostile.

  • deerjerkydave

    Certainly some Mormons are going to be sensitive to religious persecution, whether real or perceived. The Mormon community is going through growing pains as it emerges into the mainstream of society. Society is going through adjustments as it comes to terms with what Mormonism will bring. In the end I think it will be for the best, both for Mormons and for society.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Rosen did not apologize immediately, but rather reiterated her viewpoint several times in response to a surge if suppirt fir Ann Romney on Twitter and even repudiation of Rosen’s statements by the Obama campaignm eventually including the First Lady. Rosen did not make a slip of the tongue, a poorly mentally edited statement. Her repeated statements defending her original criticism demonstrated this eas a deeply held conviction, that any woman who was not punching a clock was not to be allowed to express an opinion on the concerns of women, as if stay at home mothers live in a separate country from those who are wage earners, as if they are not sisters, or mothers and daughters, or neighbors, or felliw church members, or fellow soccer moms. Rosen was announcing a principle of second class.citizenship and denial of civil rights to a whole category of women.

    Rosen is tone deaf in her simplistic thinking, too. Some mothers are at home because they are caring for children with special needs. Some women are at home because they have figured out that the net financial benefit of working is just not worth the hassle, because their husbands earn enough that the added.income is taxed at the higher marginal rate so they would actually earn only half as much as a single woman in the same job, and the costs of child care would eat up the rest of her earnings. Some women are at home but earning income through things they can do thete, such as child care for a coupke of working mothers, or a small business they can conduct in their spare time like one of the many multi-level marketing businesses, or they work as reservations clerks for Jet Blue on their home computers, or they are editors or authors like Stephenie Meyer, or they are compketing a college degree through one of the multiplying online programs offered by universities. And some families have decided that it is worth one parent staying home so they can home school their children rather than subject them to bureaucracies that are constrained by those like Rosen who devalue people who have diffetent life priorities than simpky earning money.


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