Mockery of Mormonism comes easily for many Americans.
Commentators have offered many reasons, but even they have found it difficult to turn their gaze from Mormon peculiarities. As a result, they have missed a critical function of American anti-Mormonism: the faith has been oddly reassuring to Americans. As a recent example, the Broadway hit “The Book of Mormon” lampoons the religion’s naïveté on racial issues, which is striking given that the most biting criticisms have focused on the show’s representations of Africans and blackness.
As a Mormon and a scholar of religious history, I am unsurprised by the juxtaposition of Mormon mocking and racial insensitivity. Anti-Mormonism has long masked America’s contradictions and soothed American self-doubt. In the 19th century, antagonists charged that Mormon men were tyrannical patriarchs, that Mormon women were virtual slaves and that Mormons diabolically blurred church and state. These accusations all contained some truth, though the selfsame accusers denied women the vote, bolstered racist patriarchy and enthroned mainstream Protestantism as something of a state religion.
Despite internal division, persecution and periods of rampant defection, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has continued to grow, even though it continues to make Americans uneasy. The political scientists Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell found that Mormonism ranked with Islam near the bottom of the list of Americans’ “most respected” religions.
Making Mormons look bad helps others feel good. By imagining Mormons as intolerant rubes, or as heretical deviants, Americans from left and right can imagine they are, by contrast, tolerant, rational and truly Christian. Mitt Romney’s candidacy is only the latest opportunity for such stereotypes to be aired.
Contemporary anti-Mormonism tends to emerge either from the secular left or from the evangelical Protestant right. For the left, Mormonism often functions as a stand-in for discomfort over religion generally. Mormon religious practice offers a lot of really, well, religious religion: ritual underclothing, baptism for the dead, secret temple rites and “clannishness” (a term invoked in the past in attacks on Catholics and Jews). Any religion looks weird from the outside, but the image of Mormonism seems caught somewhere between perpetual strangeness and strait-laced blandness.
When a perceived oddity is backed by Mormon money or growing political clout, the left gets jumpy. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and HBO’s Bill Maher have resorted to caricature, stereotyping and hyperbole in their anti-Mormon attacks. Liberals were outraged by Mormon financing of Proposition 8, the 2008 ban on same-sex marriage in California. They scoff at Mormonism’s all-male priesthood and ask why church leaders have yet to fully repudiate the racist teachings of previous authorities.
For the right, Mormonism figures in even more complicated ways. The Mormon road to respectability has often led, as it did for Mr. Romney, through Harvard Business School; pro-business Republicans have found ready friends among well-placed Mormons. But many rank-and-file evangelical Protestants call Mormonism a cult — as the pastor Robert Jeffress did last fall — or a “non-Christian religion.” Indeed, evangelical hatred has been the driving force behind national anti-Mormonism.
Anti-Mormon attacks by evangelicals have betrayed anxiety over the divisions in their movement and their slipping cultural authority as arbiters of religious authenticity. Some big-hearted evangelicals have recently reached out to Mormons with genuine understanding, but they must now fend off charges of getting too cozy with Satan’s minions. Because evangelicals are hard pressed for unity to begin with, and because they have defined themselves less and less in terms of historic Christian creeds, their objections to Mormonism might carry less and less cultural weight.
Many conservatives, in fact, seem more concerned with Mr. Obama’s political heresies than with Mr. Romney’s religious ones. It may be that Mr. Obama’s unpopularity will prove a key factor in Mormonism’s continued mainstreaming. With politics and religion so inextricably linked in our culture, a Romney presidency would entail lasting effects for Mormonism and its image. Segments of the religious right might finally make peace with, if not quite accept, Mormonism’s various heterodoxies. The left may struggle to comprehend a steadily diversifying faith that has increasingly global reach.
This election, regardless of outcome, unquestionably pushes the United States onto new political terrain because neither candidate represents the religious old guard. But until Americans work through our contradictory impulses regarding faith, diversity and freedom, there is no reason to believe anti-Mormonism will go away anytime soon.