Mormons and Idiosyncrasy

Now that Governor Romney is off the campaign trail—we don’t do any Sightings of candidates on the trail—we can, without commenting on him or the part his church and faith played in his demise, do a retrospective on the Mormon-hate that blighted air waves, the internet, and some printed quotations while he was spot-lit. The locus classicus of the hate, one that has plenty of company, is the on-air MSNBC spewing by Lawrence O’Donnell Jr., “pundit and actor,” on the McLaughlin Group TV show. I quote: “Romney comes from a religion founded by a criminal who was anti-American, pro-slavery, and a rapist. And he comes from that lineage and says, ‘I respect this religion fully.’…He’s got to answer.” The other religion that gets treated that way, with such impunity, is Islam. O’Donnell himself was not treated with impunity; he was knuckle-rapped with a feather-duster suspension. That could change by the time you read this, but for now the remark was not treated with the seriousness that an anti-black or anti-Semitic comment by the merest sportswriter would elicit.

One needs hold no brief for (or against) the Latter-day-Saints or the Muslims and their founders to find occasion to ask what went wrong, what goes wrong, when in a United States where so many good things are happening on the interfaith, racial, ethnic, and gender fronts, this underground of “antis” so frequently emerges. I’ve had numerous Latter-Day-Saint Ph.D. students, know some leaders, have spoken at some of their scholarly gatherings, have learned and taught much about their history, and can’t find anyone who can find something that would rule out a Mormon from being Chief Executive. (Curiously, the issue did not even come up, as far as I can remember, when Mitt Romney’s father ran for president in a generation that putatively was more prejudiced than our enlightened generation is.)

Let the O’Donnells rant on as they present their bill of particulars: The Mormons have secrets. So do the Masons, who met lethal prejudice one hundred and fifty years ago, but get a free ride now along with your friendly neighborhood fraternities and sororities. Mormons are too clubby and do favors for each other. So are the Notre Dame (or any other strong college of your choice) grads. Or they are too successful. That’s not a blight elsewhere in capitalist America. Finally: their founding story is really weird. Let’s stop right there: I like to quote George Santayana, who wrote that “every living and healthy religion has a marked idiosyncrasy. Its power consists in its special and surprising message.” One notices: Every religion looks ‘idiosyncratic’ and its stories are ‘surprising’ to all others. We Christians and Jews are empowered, motivated, and within Christianity, are ‘saved’ by those stories and messages. We spend decades and energies helping fellow citizens and ourselves live creatively with people who, again in Santayana’s terms, propound “another world to live in.”

Taking testimony about the evils of Mormonism by ex-Mormons is likely to be as objective as it is if it comes against Catholicism by ex-Catholics. If it was it our calling, we could find profound fault with many policies and actions of some Latter-Day Saints or members and leaders of other faiths. My own company, that of historians, is in the business of telling stories about others’ stories. No one is to be uncritical, where there is often much to criticize. But criticism is one thing; hate speech and untruths are another.

Sightings is a publication of The University of Chicago’s Martin Marty Center.

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