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.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peculiarpeople/ Alan Hurst

    “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 think this is right on. I’ve heard Harvard’s Noah Feldman express the point this way: In 2008, both Obama and Romney were confronted with hard questions about unusual things their churches believed, but Obama had a much easier time dealing with them. Why? Because he was a member of the majority religion. As a Protestant, he could freely condemn his pastor’s more unusual teachings, and when Rev. Wright made himself obnoxious enough, Obama could simply leave his fold. I don’t think Protestant America understands why Romney can’t leave Mormonism, and I don’t think either Protestant or Catholic America understands why he can’t publicly disavow his Church’s more unusual or unpopular teachings. (With some exceptions, of course.)

  • Saskia

    I think a difference is also the ease with which Obama can talk about his (less exotic) faith. Mormons can sometimes expect opposition where there is none and clam up prematurely. Understandable, but not something that eases dialogue.

    But you’re right, Mormonism does seem to be fair game. I’m teaching a Mormonism and America class this semester, and the first response cards I got from them included things like ‘blasphemy’. After ten classes or so, they’ve learned to think outside the box, but it was hard going for a few of them at first.

  • http://chriscarrollsmith.blogspot.com Christopher Smith

    “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.”

    I think that’s exactly right. People feel they can criticize Mormonism without appearing racist, elitist, xenophobic, or un-American. The only other faith that fits that bill, I think, is scientology. Well, maybe Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists, but they make less inviting targets because they’re not quite as visible or idiosyncratic. For a lot of Americans, I think Mormonism has come to symbolize both the nobility and the ridiculousness of our collective credulity. There’s a sense in which we are all Mormon, and in laughing at Mormons we laugh at ourselves.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Joseph Smith once remarked that if he had not experienced his visionary experiences, he would have a hard time accepting their reality. He and other Mormons have always known that believing in a living God communicating with living prophets is something that many people do not want to believe actually happens. If they admit it is possible, and admit that they and their own churches are not experiencing it, they would have to seriously question the validity of their own denomination. Keeping God within the pages of the Bible, where he can be moderated by pastors and theologians, and kept from doing things that are unexpected, unexplained, or highly demanding, is a much more comfortable place for them.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints invites not only non-Mormons who are investigating possible membership in the Church, but also people who grew up as Mormons, to confront the question of whether they can honestly accept the Mormon version of reality, angels and prophets and all, as being in the same real world we all inhabit. Both investigators and young Mormons are invited to read the Book of Mormon, and then respond to the challenge of Moroni Chapter 10 verses 3 to 5, which asks the reader to “ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things [the Book of Mormon] are not true.” And it promises that the sincere prayer of a person willing to change their lives when they get an answer, WILL get an answer “by the power of the Holy Ghost.” After reading over 500 pages about the revelations given to men and women over a thousand year period, the Book of Mormon asks the reader to decide whether he lives in the world where angels and prophets are real, and invites him to experience some of that prophetic inspiration himself.

    It is obviously hard to read the minds and hearts of people, but the vast majority of actively engaged and believing adult Mormons have had that experience, have had the reality of revelatory experience made clear to their own satisfaction, and thus stand ready to accept the reality of the Book of Mormon narrative and of Joseph Smith’s more modern miraculous experiences. And actively engaged Mormons continue to rely on that gift of personal revelation as they confront the challenges of fulfilling callings wihin the church, as full time missionaries and teachers and leaders, and most of all as parents.

    Mormons have had those personal experiences, but they know that those who have not experienced those revelations have a hard time accepting the reality of a world of angels and prophets. So Mormons are tolerant of those who are ignorant of this evidence. But that special knowledge, that distinctive experience, is the reason why Mormons can accept as real things which seem absurd to people who a priori have ruled out angels and prophets.

    And for Mormons who have had those experiences, the world as seen through that lens of understanding is a far richer place. There is a purpose for our existence, a reason for our suffering, a brilliant light that beckons ahead of us at the end of our mortal tunnel. Being “luminous beings” in drab clothing is not a George Lucas fantasy, but a reality for the Latter-day Saints, and it encompasses all human beings, who will one distant day remember that we are all angels, and always have been.

    • DeeAnn

      Well said, Raymond.

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

    I am a Mormon. I’ve noticed these perceptions and criticisms too, to be sure. One thing to note however in this discussion of fears about how the LDS Church would influence Romney is that no one is asking how the LDS Church influences Harry Reid or Orrin Hatch. That’s because it doesn’t! Nor would the LDS Church influence or pressure Romney. On the whole the Church has tried very hard to distance themselves from Romney’s campaign because if they didn’t it would throw into question their strict political neutrality. Members are encouraged to be involved politically and vote, etc., but no recommendation is made from the Church as to who or what platforms to support beyond supporting the definition of traditional marriage to facilitate maintenence of religious liberties.
    Thanks for listening.
    http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com

  • D

    The other reason for the license to criticize I would think is the missionary effort. The effort to persuade that it is true and that all beliefs may not be equally valid invites counter- arguments, both intellectually and emotionally.

  • Joe

    I think there is another issue. Many years ago (when Ted Koppel was still on the air) I heard an interview with the president of the Church of Scientology. Mr. Koppel asked him about some of Scientology’s stranger beliefs, and the Scientology president answered by asking, what would a Catholic say about the Assumption of the Virgin. Mr. Koppel suggested they’d say it was a matter of faith. So the Scientologist said that that was his answer to, and the interviewer backed off. I was frustrated by that because, there’s a huge difference here. Miracles lie in the realm of the supernatural. The Assumption, Resurrection, Rapture, or Night Flight of Mohammed, are purported to be acts of God, where he sovereignly suspends what is natural and even possible. On the other hand, the claim that a dictator on the planet Theta sent political enemies to Earth in spaceships that look like dc-10s, and dropped them in volcanoes, and dropped atomic bombs into those volcanoes, is a claim about history and the physical universe. It is right to question it as such. Is it logical, is it plausible, is there evidence? Mormonism makes similarly earthly claims. I recently saw a youtube video making a series of arguments against Mormonism. One example was to question how ships without rudders or windows could navigate across the ocean. It seems to me the answer to that is simple: God lead them. believe it; don’t believe it; but there’s no room to argue: it is a matter of faith. But Mormon claims about the translation of the so-called Book of Abraham, is not so easy to dismiss. There is science to contend with here. So too claims of civilizations, huge populations, enormous battles, and species of animals said to be in America; that is subject to archaeological examination. Mormonism by making such claims, in the realm of history and natural science, opens itself up to critique in a way most other religions mainly do not.


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