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.