Mormon guy to Internet: shut up and think a minute

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I was outed in The New York Times over the weekend. In the crossword, in fact.

As 52-across, I was (along with 41-across, DONNYOSMOND) part of a mini-theme about famous Mormons. So, yeah, everyone knew I was Mormon anyway (even if everyone didn’t assume that a dorky-looking white guy with a Utah address was Mormon, I mentioned it a couple times on Jeopardy!), but still. My religion is weird enough that it can make me a New York Times crossword theme. Is yours? Nyaah.

For a long time, I sort of felt like Mormons were assimilating pretty well into the fabric of American life. It was hard to get a grasp on this, living overseas and then in Utah, but that was how I saw it, judging from media treatment and private conversations. Being LDS made you a minority and a conversation-starter at dinner, maybe, but it wasn’t going to curl any lips in disgust. It was an interesting oddity, like being a vegan or a hockey fan or something.

But that’s changing. Maybe it’s just the general rudeness of the Internet age, but it seems like knowing sneers and pot-shots at Mormonism are actually becoming a currency of cool now. Did Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which puzzlingly portrays the mild-mannered Mormon West as a seething American underbelly of violence and fundamentalism, start this off? Was it the South Park episode? (That’s Mormon founder Joseph Smith at left in the picture above.) Or Big Love?

Mitt Romney’s run for president sure isn’t helping. If Romney somehow gets the nomination, we’ll probably start to see more of this anti-Mormon bigotry from the evangelical right, but right now, Mitt’s taking most of his op-ed heat from the left. But the bashing isn’t generally politically motivated–Mormon political or social views aren’t getting picked at much (which would be fair enough). I guess you did get The New Republic raising the laughable JFK-era boogeyman of a Presidential pawn taking his orders straight from Rome Salt Lake City. (If that’s the concern, hasn’t anyone noticed that the top-ranking Democrat in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, is a devout Mormon?)

But substantive political argument in these hit pieces is rare. Instead, otherwise rational people have straight-facedly taken the position that LDS theology itself is too outlandish to deserve any respect whatsoever. Religious discrimination is wrong, sure, and people should be allowed to believe what they want. Unless you’re Mormon, of course. Eww. They’re just weird.

Take Jacob Weisberg or alcoholic gadfly Christoper Hitchens in Slate, for example. Or this Boston Globe op-ed. Andrew Sullivan declared “Mormon week” on The Daily Dish a few months ago and spent days guffawing over those dopey Mormons.

Look, I don’t expect opinion writers to write about the LDS church, or any religion not their own, from a believer’s point of view. That wouldn’t make sense. But you don’t get any class points in my book for turning somebody’s sacred beliefs into punchlines just to jazz up your prose. I’m sure we’re going to see more of these things until the Mitt-ster drops out of the race, so here are a few points of advice to the would-be bashers.

  1. After you get off a particularly good zinger at those gullible Mormons, try recasting your sentence so it refers to “those gullible Jews” or “…Catholics” or “…Muslims.” If, Wonkette, you think Mormon temple garments should be called “magic underwear” throughout your post, try substituting “magic beanie” for “yarmulke” or “magic Nilla wafer” for “Communion host” in a similar context and considering whether that’s journalism, or whether that’s even funny anymore. If you’re horrified by the result, it’s because bigotry is bigotry, no matter the target. Mormons are no strangers to religious discrimination–after all, Missouri had its 1838 extermination order against Mormons on the books until 1976. Discrimination against Mormons isn’t any more of a laughing matter than anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic feeling, or any other religious prejudice.
  2. Realize that pretty much all religious belief is fundamentally irrational. Weisberg write that the founding myth of the LDS church–unschooled 19th-century farm boy claims that an angel led him to buried metal plates, which he then translated through miraculous means into a book of scripture–is so a priori stupid that he should be allowed his pot-shots. Sure, he allows, this is no weirder than what lies beneath any other religion–virgin birth, the parting of the Red Sea, Gabriel’s delivery of the Qur’an. “But a few eons makes a big difference,” he says, waving his hands. “The world’s greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor.” So a patina of age is what makes it okay to laugh at Mitt Romney about Joseph Smith, even though you’d never make Muhammad jokes to Keith Ellison? That’s just dopey. I don’t know how many churchgoing Americans Weisberg hangs out with, but let me assure him: most of them are just as sincere about their faiths’ improbable divine origins as Mormons are. Does he think modern Baptists and Catholics and Jews read scripture and think to themselves, “Wow, I’m sure glad my splintered, moderated religion doesn’t believe these nutty metaphorical miracles ever really happened”? I’ve always thought the modern American context of Mormonism’s story is what makes it special and uniquely fascinating. Weisberg et. al. just seem to think it makes it a better punchline.
  3. Finally, do your @#$% research. Pieces like Weisberg’s and Hitchens’ seem to be based on a single viewing of that one South Park and perhaps dim memories of a 1976 undergraduate reading of Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History. So they feel no compunction about calling LDS church founder Joseph Smith a “charlatan” who whipped up Mormonism L. Ron Hubbard-style as a “racket” to gratify his own ego and sexual libertinism. There’s only one problem with this caricature: you’re not going to find too many scholars of Mormonism, believing or not, who buy it anymore. When it comes to Mormon history, Brodie is out; Richard Bushman’s considerably more nuanced Rough Stone Rolling is in. Smith is still an enigma, and you’ll find a broad spectrum of scholars willing to explain his remarkable life with varying shades of piety or cynicism (or, if you’re talking to a Mormon, as a genuine visionary). But it’s certainly not good enough anymore to assume in your very first graf that everyone knows Joseph Smith was just a con man and let’s take it from there. Again, try this out with “Buddha” or “Joan of Arc” or “Muhammad” and see how your piece sounds.

PBS has just aired a thoughtful four-hour Frontline doc on “The Mormons” (check local listings if you missed it; maybe it’ll re-air). Some LDS folks will probably blanch at the series’ straightforward look at polygamy, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and other historical controversies of Mormonism. Nonbelievers might blink at how seriously and respectfully many of the doc’s talking heads treat the LDS church’s surprising origins and evolution. They shouldn’t be surprised. Not every look at a major American religion has to be a clueless five-minute hit piece. Sometimes there’s more to see.