Last week I heard former Senator Bob Bennett speak about Mormonism in the 21st century, in a very interesting presentation. At one point he commented approvingly about a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal which lauded Mormons for not fighting back when our religion is attacked, unlike Muslims, whom the article singled out for censure because of violence related to the Innocence of Muslims movie trailer. The editorial stated:
So let's get this straight: In the consensus view of modern American liberalism, it is hilarious to mock Mormons and Mormonism but outrageous to mock Muslims and Islam. Why? Maybe it's because nobody has ever been harmed, much less killed, making fun of Mormons.
Uh, not exactly. Mormonism does not have a clean slate on this score. In 1844, when a Nauvoo newspaper dared to print unsavory things about Joseph Smith (some of which were true, some of which were not), he didn't turn the other cheek; he destroyed the press. And I don't mean in a metaphorical way; he had the printing press physically destroyed, never to produce another newspaper. Even LDS Apostle and legal expert Dallin Oaks agrees that Smith's act was illegal by the standards of the time.
True, no one died in that incident, but the Mormons' violent reaction begat more violent reactions: the printing press destruction was just the evidence local officials had been waiting for so they could arrest Joseph Smith, and it proved to be the catalyzing event that an angry mob cited as a good enough reason to assassinate him.
Mormons have come a long way since the 1840s in handling what the media says about us. In fact, we've had a remarkable evolution just in the last decade:
- In 2003 the LDS Church released an 8,251-word rebuttal of Jon Krakauer's bestseller Under the Banner of Heaven, which was rife with inaccuracies and misleading conclusions. A sampling: "This book is not history, and Krakauer is no historian. He is a storyteller who cuts corners to make the story sound good. His basic thesis appears to be that people who are religious are irrational, and that irrational people do strange things. He does a huge disservice to his readers by promulgating old stereotypes."
- In 2006 -- before the new HBO series Big Love had even debuted on the air -- the Church condemned it as "essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds." (Not cool to condemn something sight unseen. . . as if Mormons don't know what it feels like to be judged before getting the chance to speak for ourselves.)
- In 2009, however, the Church started changing its tune. When local Mormons began a grassroots protest movement to express their anger about Big Love's depiction of an LDS temple ceremony in an upcoming episode, the Church rose above it all with this statement: "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an institution does not call for boycotts. Such a step would simply generate the kind of controversy that the media loves and in the end would increase audiences for the series."
Well played, LDS Church. Somewhere along the way, it had stopped reacting to criticism like a self-conscious teenager. Somewhere along the way, it had learned to say "So what if we have acne? We're actually pretty terrific if you take the time to look a little deeper."
The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.
So here's what I have to say to the Wall Street Journal: You were a little too generous to Mormons by ignoring the long and painful history of how we got to this magnanimous point where we can, as you say, be a people who "tend not to punch back" when mocked. But we're moving in that direction.