Seth Perry: Why Is It So Hard to Talk about Mormons?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Seth Perry is a Ph.D. student in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.]

It seems nearly impossible for those in the public discourse to talk evenly about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Commentators are given to hyperbole (the growth of Mormonism is "one of the great events in the history of religion," says intrepid sociologist Rodney Stark in a new book); fawning (according to a Newsweek cover story written by a Mormon, the faith is "optimistic, vigorous, a source of continuing personal growth for all who accept its blessings -- [it] in many ways echoes the American Dream"); snide joviality (Larry McMurtry writes of Joseph Smith's "prattle about an angel" in the New York Review of Books); or outright ridicule (in a New York Times book review, Walter Kirn, himself a lapsed Mormon, uses an analogy to belief in Santa Claus to explain how the growth of Mormonism may have nothing to do with its content).

However one may describe the conditions of religious tolerance on the ground, our increasingly tolerant public discourse gives a wide berth to religions outside of the Jewish/Christian norm. The examples above, though, all fairly recent, suggest that there is something not quite as even-handed in the public discussion of Mormonism. Instead, there are articles celebrating Mormons -- as some scholars have opined -- as a "model minority" among religions: more industrious, healthier and cleaner than the rest of us. And then the opposite: the flickering smile, the whimsical tone -- McMurtry, for example, writing in a formal review in a major publication that Brigham Young "fathered fifty-seven children on twenty wives" when he means "with"; and another writer's throwaway line in the New Yorker classing Mormons with Wiccans and Scientologists (groups decidedly further from the mainstream than Mormons).

I think the problem has something to do with the fact that Mormonism is different from our culture's de facto Christian/Jewish point of reference -- but not that different. Mormonism is no Hinduism: Latter-day Saints share sacraments, the Bible, and indeed the Heavenly Savior with other Christians. But everyone knows, if they know anything about Mormonism, that its followers are not just any Christians: the sacraments sometimes take place in temples where only the approved may venture; the Bible is heavily supplemented with other revealed texts and contemporary prophetic authority; and the salvation offered by the Mormon Christ is combined with a chance for each believer to progress toward godhood.

The fact that these distinctive characteristics are expressed through elements and vocabulary familiar to Christians often leads popular pundits and even otherwise detached scholars of religion to talk about Mormons the way one might talk about that kid in class with mittens pinned to his jacket -- bless their hearts, they try, but they just don't quite get it. Among believing Christians, along with the condescension is often a note of defensiveness; people who would never dream of being anything but deferential to more remote religions often feel the need to police the boundaries of their own. Put a universal truth about peace and love in the Buddha's mouth and liberal Christians fall over each other to join in interfaith celebration. But tell a Christian that such a saying came from Jesus -- they've just never heard this one -- and everyone gets a little uncomfortable.

The answer to this discomfort, of course, is practice; increased discussion of Mormonism in more varied contexts will breed better habits. Recent coverage of the possibility that Mitt Romney -- a Mormon and governor of Massachusetts -- will run for president has represented a marked step forward, frankly treating his religion as a possible liability while refusing to make it the focal point of discussion. Time will tell, though, if American popular discourse can become fully comfortable with what is often called a "home-grown" American religion.

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Robert H. Briggs - 2/4/2006

I read with interest Seth Perry's description of some of the problems in the contemporary assessment of Mormonism. I largely agree with his observations about the Yale and Library of Congress conferences & the difficulties in launching a truly academic "Mormon Studies."

There is one venue, however, which is making notable strides. Claremont (Calif.) School of Religion has developed community councils with various faith traditions including the Latter-day Saints. They just completed their second conference on Mormonism. Academics from Brigham Young presented but they have not dominated the conferences. Those that have attended the Yale, LOC & Claremont felt that the Claremont conferences have been the most successful -- & largely avoided precisely the problems Mr. Perry mentioned.

Claremont plans to establish a chair in Mormon Studies. You're right, the first occupant of the chair will probably be a Mormon. But the selection criteria will be rigorously academic. And future conference will continue in the comparative format adopted thus far and continue to be academic, not evangelizing. I am a member of the LDS Council for Mormon Studies but the guiding lights have been Dean Karen Torjesen of the Claremont Sch. of Rel., and Ann Taves, formerly of the Claremont SOR & now at UC Santa Barbara.

Those of us involved are excited about the future prospects.