In The Book of Mormon Broadway musical, the central character Elder Price sings, “I Believe…” followed by a mixed series of benign and ridiculous claims. The genius of the song is that it so perfectly performs widespread American perceptions about Mormonism in the early 21st century. Elder Price, and Mormons in general, are presented as harboring some naive and strange ideas, but in the end being good people with good intentions who might actually be able to help people.
Mitt Romney’s upcoming nomination as the Republican candidate for President seems to confirm how Mormons generally have come to be understood. Even Evangelical Republican voters have largely overcome some hesitancy about Mormonism, perhaps accepting it the way viewers of The Book of Mormon musical come to accept Mormons. Romney may hold some wacky religious ideas, but he is a good person who may actually help some people.
Like Elder Price and Mitt Romney, Mormons are praised for certain characteristics: being nice, having good families, valuing industry, thrift, or for being good citizens in the community. These are indeed genuine compliments that any community should be proud of. What is missing from this list of positive attributes is praise for Mormonism as having any important religious ideas. In fact, praises of Mormons as people often include the caveat that Mormon ideas and beliefs about angels, golden plates, and Kolob are strange, weird, ridiculous, and sometimes even dangerous.
The common response to the idea of Mormonism’s weirdness is to insist that all religions are weird to some extent. Mormons and non-Mormons alike utilize this response. Stephen Colbert said it best when he quipped, “Mormons believe Joseph Smith received golden plates from an angel on a hill, when everybody knows that Moses got stone tablets from a burning bush on a mountain!” Jon Stewart similarly evaluated the angst about Mormonism as a kind of arbitrary stigmatizing that can apply to any religion. There is something compelling about familiarizing Mormonism by way of defamiliarizing accepted religious stories, yet this also remains unsatisfying to explain why anyone would believe incredulous things.
The trotting out of apparently ridiculous Mormon ideas is evidence of just how little Americans really understand religion. Religious people of all stripes should be concerned with the way Mormonism is portrayed because it reveals the inability of people to ask the right kind of questions about religion and to discern how religious people construct their worlds. Discussion of Mormonism in the media tends to reveal the fundamentally unethical way that Americans think about religion, engaging in reductionism, decontextualization, and stereotyping. It is not enough to suggest that all religious are equally silly (a point Bill Maher’s Religulous makes not in defense of religion, but against it). This perspective represents a failure to understand religion at all.
Such shallow explanations of Mormonism tend to decontextualize certain details that are embedded within larger narratives in a way that renders them humorous or bizarre, but unintelligible as meaningful religious ideas. It would be like saying that Christianity is about the belief that three Zoroastrian magi followed a star to a house in Bethlehem or Islam is about the idea that Mohammed flew on a horse to Jerusalem. These may be accurate details, but shorn from the broader context they reveal essentially nothing about Christianity or Islam. Bullet lists of strange ideas hardly explain what people find compelling about the Christian or Islamic narratives and does little to illuminate the meaning of these religions to billions of adherents.
How then should we think about religions that avoids reducing them to a few salacious ideas? Iconic scholar of religion J.Z. Smith has suggested that in the way we speak about religion, there is “a tension between religion imagined as an exotic category of human experience and expression, and religion imagined as an ordinary category of human expression and activity.” (Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982], xii.) In other words, we are often tempted to treat religion as something strange and exotic rather than as a normal way of engaging with the world. When we engage with the religious ideas of others, we owe them the respect of an explanation of what may be intellectually compelling about them. What kinds of problems are they seeking to solve? How do they make sense of the situation around them?
Like most religious traditions, Mormonism emerged to resolve some kind of spiritual or intellectual problems its early adherents saw in the competing options available to them. In order for Mormonism to survive, it has had to continue to be relevant, to address something that people find compelling. As the discussion of Mormonism continues in the public sphere, it may be useful to understand what people find compelling about Mormonism, and even why so many apparently smart and capable thinkers remain committed to its teachings.
There is no doubt that public discussions of Mormonism will remain interested in difficult issues from its past, including polygamy and its history of excluding people of African descent from priesthood leadership; and its present, including excluding women from priesthood ordination and its teachings about homosexuality. These discussions are important, and will hopefully be conducted responsibly and fairly. Rather than focus solely on these more problematic and controversial aspects, we might practice an attentiveness toward Mormonism as a paradigm for thinking about religion more broadly, to articulate Mormonism as offering a persuasive evaluation (for some) of human situations. The questions that we should be asking, and Mormons should be answering: How does Mormonism handle the big questions? What is the meaning of life, of death, of the terrible and the good in the world? How do Mormon notions about the cosmos affect ethical decisions toward others? What do Mormon narratives about the past and the present offer their adherents? These are not simple questions, and the answers are not simple either. To discuss them at all is a serious endeavor. While we may laugh (and I think we should) about religion, we can only do so ethically if we learn to think with religion as well.