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Mormons: Not Plotting to Take Over the World Anytime Soon


With Mitt Romney's decisive win over Newt Gingrich yesterday, can Mormons' fears of anti-Mormon discrimination be laid to rest? Florida's voters seem to be saying yes. I am not yet so optimistic.

Yesterday I wrote a short op ed piece for the New York Times's "Room for Debate" section, chiding some conservative voters for turning to the likes of Gingrich in their desperate quest for the "Romneydote"--someone, anyone, other than Mitt. Mine was only one voice in the roundtable discussion, with five experts being asked to weigh in on the question, "What is it about Mormons? If Mormons are such responsible people, why are voters turned off?" Although there were some fine points raised, including an excellent piece by UNC historian Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a couple of the other panelists' entries gave me pause.

Sally Denton, the author of American Massacre (the only disappointing work of history among all four of the major books on the Mountain Meadows Massacre), argues that Mormonism is a wholly patriatrchal religion that oppresses women. It's not a particularly nuanced argument, but it's one I might tend to agree with (at least on my most cynical days) and have written about myself. But she supports this by appealing to a 30-year-old memoir by Sonia Johnson, who has not been LDS since 1981, as though the LDS Church has made no progress for women since then. Silencing contemporary Mormon women who are active in the church is not the best way for an author to persuade readers that Big Bad Mormon Patriarchs are the only ones responsible for silencing contemporary Mormon women who are active in the church.

Then she follows it all up with this untenable conclusion:

In light of the theology and divine prophecies of the church, it would seem that the office of the American presidency is the ultimate ecclesiastical position to which a male Mormon might aspire.

Given that Mitt Romney is a high church official and not just a member, voters are right to be circumspect.

Huh? First of all, Mitt Romney is not a "high church official." To my knowledge the highest church office he has ever held is stake president, and that was before his career in politics; he has not been a stake president for nearly two decades and has certainly never been a general authority. But more importantly, this entire argument rests on the old "Mormons are plotting to take over the world" archetype.

It's not that this is unique to Mormonism; in the nineteenth century the theocratic religion in question was Catholicism (Hordes of immigrants! Tyrannical popes! Sneaky Jesuits!), and today Islam usually wins this dubious honor. That's not because Islam in any way deserves to be scourged as a threat to American democracy, but because ignorant fearmongers such as Franklin Graham have found that doing so helps them to stay in the headlines.

Denton provides no support for this assertion other than the historical example of the 1850s Utah War, when Mormons were engaged in serious conflict with the federal government. She's certainly right about that. But if we're reaching all the way back to the 1850s in order to prove a point about a contemporary and dynamic religious movement, we have a historical problem. In the 1850s, many Baptists denied the basic humanity of black people. That's hardly a charge that would stick to them today. Are Mormons not permitted to change as well?

Tonight I'm going to be a guest on Milt Rosenberg's WGN radio show out of Chicago. For two hours we're going to have a substantive discussion about Mormonism in America. I just learned that the other guest is going to be Patrick Mason, who is the new Mormon Studies chair at Claremont graduate school. I hope that interviews and conversations like these do a bit to replace misconceptions like Denton's with a better understanding, and I look forward to the conversation.

Photo from RNS Archive.

Topics: Politics, Election
Beliefs: Mormon
Tags: are mormons plotting to take over america, flunking sainthood, jana riess, mitt romney, mormon feminism, mormonism and american politics, mormons for barack obama, mountain meadows massacre, new york times room for debate, patrick mason, religion news service blogs, sally denton, sonia johnson


  1. Jan, thank you for responding to some of the crazy paranoia out there.  I have come tobelieve that because people are almost totally ignorant of who Mormons are, how we live and what we believe, they use us as a screen to project their own worst fears about religion. The result would be comical, if it did not have serious consequences for individual Mormons, who get discriminated against for all sorts of strange reasons.

    For example, one friend of ours who had been a neighbor for three years when we lived in Japan, told us that when a woman with an education degree applied for a teaching job at the public school where our friend taught in Rancho Cucamonga, they turned her down because, being a Mormon, she could not possibly know how to deal with kids form poor neighborhoods infested with gang violence.  Apparently they had no idea that the applicant may have grown up in exactly that kind of neighborhood. 

    During one of the “learning tolerance” courses the Air Force subjects its people to, the class members were asked to tell us what they observed about a drawing depicting people in a subway car.  Concerning the figure of a hasidic Jew, the man next to me said, “And there’s a Mormon.” 

    People commenting on blogs apply to Mormons the worst characteristics they have ever associated with any religious group, such as reviling science, rejecting education, being tyrannical, having greedy preachers, wanting political power so we can force everyone to convert to Mormonism, and believing everyone else on earth is going to hell, even as we are determined to force everyone who dies into Mormonism by baptizing them, sometimes by literally digging them up!  I assume they invest so much time and energy into ths because they love to have someone they can beat up on.  It would spoil the game if they had to actually seriously learn anythinig about the real beliefs of Mormons, or get out of their chairs and bop over to a real Mormon church meeting and see what people are like. 

    While the ignorance is so widespread that there is obviously no one in their own circles of acquaintance who is going to tell the worst critics that they are off base, one would hope that there would be a general sense of fair play that would kick in, and people would recognize that this is just plain gossip that is a vicious habit and contrary to all the high-flown language about the importance of “diversity” that is the sole justification for racial discrimination in university admissions these days.  When Harold Bloom and the New York Times have no sense of detecting and rejecting intolerance, what can we expect of the average freshman?

  2. By the way, I believe Sonia Johnson was excommunicated in 1979.  It happened when I was living in the DC area, and she was a member in Virginia.  Her supporters held a candlelight vigil outside the stake center.

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