MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell Needs to Get a Grip on his Issues with Mormonism

On Wednesday night, MSNBC political talk host Lawrence O’Donnell went off the rails during a segment about Catholic attitudes towards LGBT equality, by concluding his five-minute segment with a diatribe against Mormonism.  

Citing recently-released statistics showing broad support for LGBT equality among American Catholics, O’Donnell went after political commentators who characterized “the Catholic vote” as conservative: “Every time you hear a pundit say that you hear someone who does not know what he’s talking about.”  

O’Donnell saved his strongest words for conservative media heavyweight Glenn Beck, who had characterized pro-equality Catholics as not being representative of general American sentiment. 

“Is this some weird subset of the American population, some little cult?  Did I forget to mention that Catholic is the largest single religion in the United States? The people we are talking about are real Americans,” said O’Donnell. 

“When Glenn Beck slanders those millions and millions and millions of liberal American Catholics, he does so because he believes he is religiously superior to them and he believes he achieved this superiority by becoming”—here O’Donnell paused, straightened up, and raised his eyebrows—“a Mormon, a religion that was founded in upstate New York by a polygamist who insisted that every known branch of Christianity, including Catholicism, was simply wrong. So Beck did not invent his know-it-all religious superiority, and what Beck clearly knows nothing about is what real Americans actually think.”  

So the problem with Beck is not that he’s an opportunistic demagogue, a provocateur so cunning or a hack so ignorant (take your pick) that he recently compared Reform Jews to radical Islamists.  

No, the whole problem with Glenn Beck, according to O’Donnell, is that he is a Mormon and therefore (if you following O’Donnell’s line of reasoning) a member of a “weird subset,” a “little cult,” and not a “real American.”  And so Lawrence O’Donnell concluded his stirring defense of the complexity and humanity of 70 million American Catholics with a bitter attack on the complexity and humanity of 7 million American Mormons.  

It’s not the first time. While most Mormons are accustomed to hearing our religion casually derided as a cult everywhere from sports radio to the Cartoon Network, O’Donnell seems to have issues with Mormonism—and a particular obsession with Joseph Smith—that run a bit beyond the norm.  

On the McLaughlin Group in December 2007, O’Donnell went after Mitt Romney with a finger-wagging two-minute diatribe against Mormonism that left Eleanor Clift and even Pat Buchanan gasping for air. Beginning his rant by joking “I’m not a Mormon, but I do play one on t.v.”—O’Donnell played polygamist Bill Henrickson’s lawyer on Big Love—he characterized Mormonism as a “demented” “racist” faith “based on the work of a lying, fraudulent criminal named Joseph Smith who was a racist, who was pro-slavery.”   

Wrong on his facts and on his basic grasp of Mormon reality, O’Donnell extended his rant to a rambling HuffPo essay wherein he characterized Joseph Smith as “an alcoholic criminal” and cherrypicked the most sensational Mormon beliefs (many now rejected as doctrine or regarded as purely folk traditions) for a public lampooning.  

O’Donnell knows as much about what Mormons believe and think as Glenn Beck does about Catholics and Jews.  

The Mormons I know are regular human beings living in a complex and deeply felt relationship to a faith that they understand has historical and theological elements that other people consider weird or even troubling.   

Every Mormon stakes out his or her own relationship to the troubling aspects of our faith and its history—from its historical racist priesthood policies to the complicated lives of our religion’s founders (including, yes, gasp!, the practice of polygamy) to its current institutional stance against LGBT equality—while balancing in all that we find substantial, comforting, and compelling.  

In this we are like just about any other people of faith, for every religion (including Catholicism) has historical and contemporary elements that might be considered weird or troubling. And every religion (including Mormonism) should be seriously and robustly engaged in the public sphere, especially on matters like race and LGBT equality.  

No one is served when religious people, movements, or institutions are ridiculed, misrepresented, antagonized, or underestimated.  

That’s where Lawrence O’Donnell went wrong.  

I’m not sure where O’Donnell’s special antagonism towards Mormons stems from, but the folks at MSNBC ought to sit down and straighten it out with him before the 2012 campaign season heats up.  

At the very least, they ought to remind this political pundit who pretends to know so much about Mormonism that ours is not the only world religion founded by a polygamist who thought all other religions were wrong. Has he ever heard of Abraham, founder of Judaism?