Mormonism and Public Discourse on Religion

My students love Mormonism–or, they love to talk about Mormonism, often quite critically. And it’s not just my students. Usually when I mention to someone who is not Mormon that I study Mormonism, their eyes light up and they have a story to tell me: They just heard lyrics from “The Book of Mormon” musical, they’re angry about not being able to attend their Mormon cousin’s temple wedding, they’re concerned about Romney’s ties to the LDS Church. For years I’ve been trying to figure out why non-Mormon Americans, including me, are so fascinated by Mormonism. I have only some speculations.

I wonder if Mormonism is a “safe” way to talk publicly and critically about religion in an age of political correctness. My classes have confessed to me that Mormonism is one of the few religions that it is still okay to openly criticize. Based on anecdotal evidence from my many encounters with non-Mormons talking about Mormonism, I would have to agree with them. I am still surprised at how often fair and well-educated people will make openly critical and ill-informed remarks about Mormonism in a tone and expression that they would never use to talk about, for instance, Judaism or Islam or other groups that are perceived as being non-Christian or “exotic.” And I’m not talking here about honest disagreement with points of belief or practice or history. I’m talking about angry and badly formed opinions.

I wonder if this license to critique is, in part, because Mormonism offers just the right balance of elements. Its American members are mostly white and, on the whole, seem to be successful and thriving; as an institution it has a certain degree of power and money, but it is not seen as being part of the dominant Protestant and Catholic traditions in this country. In other words, it’s fair game. In critiquing Mormonism, non-Mormons can openly, but indirectly talk about their views on religion–what religions should look like and how they should function in society and in the lives of individuals. So, for instance, I wonder if when people express their frustration about not being able to attend a temple wedding, at some level they’re also expressing the assumption that religion should unite, not divide families, that religion should be something that brings people together. They’re expressing that fear long present in the American public discourse (see discussions about the freedom of religion during discussions about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights) that religions potentially serve as divisive and alienating elements in society.

I wonder if for some people a Romney presidency is a forbidding prospect, not so much because it raises the possibility of religious interference with the government, as it raises the prospect of interference from a particular and unfamiliar brand of religion. Sarah Gordon has written eloquently about how the nineteenth-century campaign against Mormon polygamy was a way for the government to create legal structures to enforce Protestant moral and ethical structures. I think those structures remain, at least in the way that many Americans think and talk about religion. In the public discourse, there were and are fears about George W. Bush’s religious ties and Barack Obama’s faith. But these fears aren’t quite as unreasoning as the discourse around Romney’s Mormonism, perhaps because, though coming from different ends of the Protestant spectrum, both of these faiths ultimately conform to larger and largely hidden Protestant assumptions about what religions should look like.

I wonder if talking about Mormonism is also a way that people express their belief–and hope–that religions are pure manifestations of encounters with the divine. Mormonism is a young religion. We can date its founding to April 6, 1830. Though scholars find the early life of Joseph Smith frustratingly elusive, we have enough documentation to have a pretty good idea of what happened and what the people involved were like, certainly in comparison to other historical traditions such as Christianity and Islam. And what we find is that things were messy and contradictory and that Smith and those around him were so obviously human. Angelic visits seem much more likely and understandable in the ancient Mediterranean than in the rapidly industrializing nineteenth-century U.S. Maybe Moroni, the angel who Smith said led him to the golden plates of the Book of Mormon, makes some of us question–perhaps unconsciously–those rich and meaningful biblical stories in which humanity encounters God, in which God becomes humanity. Mormonism forces us to think about what religion is in the abstract, or in the context of our particular faith traditions. If religion isn’t a pure emanation from God, what is it? Can it be true, but still flawed and fallible? And how do we figure out what the flawed and fallible parts are? By making fun of the Book of Mormon story of the Nephites and Lamanites, we perhaps try to enforce our hope about the authenticity of religious truth by excluding what we see as confusing from the complicated textures of American religions.

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