Why the “Mormon Moment” Concerns Me

| January 16 2012

Why the “Mormon Moment” Concerns Me 

By Thomas Grier 

Recently, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life published research on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints focusing primarily on their “beliefs, values, perceptions and political preferences.” For those interested about the doctrine, culture and lifestyle of Mormonism, the study is an excellent place to begin one’s inquiry.

As a practicing Mormon, I am always interested in the public’s perception of my faith.

The media and pundits have suggested America is in the middle of a “Mormon moment,” highlighting the fact that there are two Mormon candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, a critically acclaimed Broadway musical poking fun at Mormonism and a general discussion about Mormon theology and culture. There is a projected narrative that wherever you look, whether in business, government or talk radio, you are sure to find a Mormon staring back at you.

If, as expected, Mitt Romney wins the Republican nomination expect Mormonism to be in your face until the elections and beyond.

On some level, the Church of Jesus Christ recognizes this development and has invested heavily in an ad campaign promoting “ordinary” Mormons. The move is not so much to capitalize on the discussion but is a way for the Church of Jesus Christ to clear up misconceptions.

Top Mormon leaders had hired two big-name advertising agencies in 2009, Ogilvy & Mather and Hall & Partners, to find out what Americans think of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Using focus groups and surveys, they found that Americans who had any opinion at all used adjectives that were downright negative: “secretive,” “cultish,” “sexist,” “controlling,” “pushy,” “anti-gay.”

Although pleased that misconceptions are being corrected and information about Mormonism is reaching the public square, the “Mormon moment” concerns me because of its potential externalities.

Many articles are overwhelmingly positive and informative, like Businessweek’sGod’s MBAs: Why Mormon Missions Produce Leaders.” Other articles are less positive, agenda driven and subtlety condescending, like Newsweek’s “The Mormon Moment: How the Outsider Faith Creates Winners.”

When speaking about Mormonism, there seems to be those who are too eager to highlight the disproportionate share of power Mormons supposedly hold, whether in government, business or any other industry.

The Mormon Church is 181 years old, and its adherents compose less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, according to a 2009 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). Yet Latter-Day Saints hold, or have held, a seemingly disproportionate number of top jobs at such major corporations as Marriott International (MAR), American Express, American Motors, Dell Computers (DELL), Lufthansa, Fisher-Price (MAT), Life Re, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Madison Square Garden, La Quinta Properties, PricewaterhouseCooper, and Stanley Black & Decker (SWK). The head of human resources at Citigroup is Mormon, and in 2010 Goldman Sachs (GS) hired 31 grads from BYU, the same number it hired from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Walter Kirn, a writer for Newsweek, has called Mormonism the “GE of religions.” This description can be taken positively or negatively.

Mormons do hold positions of power, like any group. Certainly a Mormon’s faith, values and culture shape their successful outcomes. But there are numerous groups who espouse hard work, family, success and integrity, equally or more so representing roles in business or government.

When one claims that any race or creed disproportionately controls anything, darker claims and scapegoating almost always arise. The anti-defamation league highlights how anti-Semitism led people to call the Jewish people “conspiratorial, manipulative outsider[s], often with powers and designs of world domination.” Anti-Semitism has led to many insane conspiracy theories about the Jewish people, one of which is they control the world’s money supply.

In 1962, Omni Publications, a distributor of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, reprinted an early attack on the Federal Reserve called The Truth About the Slump (1931), in which author A.N. Field asserted:

“The Money Power that rules the world today is centered in the hands of individuals of a particular race and creed.” Field labeled the founding of America’s Federal Reserve as that point when “the United States was enslaved under this German-Jew engine of control.”

Because the Jewish people were and are an industrious people, succeeding in America’s free market enterprise, there were people who were quick to jump on the conspiratorial bandwagon. The success of the Jews brought about persecution, abuse and wildly outlandish claims.

The charge that “Jews control the Federal Reserve” is a classic example of the hatemonger’s paranoid-style exploitation of legitimate concerns — in this case, the nation’s economy. Moreover, the wide appeal of this anti-Semitic conspiracy theory among all kinds of extremists strikingly demonstrates how the agendas of otherwise opposing hate groups meet on common ground: the scapegoating of Jews.

Mormons are very active in internalizing the history of their faith. We are especially cognizant of the persecution of our people, fleeing every early territory, losing property, family and our basic civil liberties.

Early in our history, Mormons had settled because of persecution in Missouri. Because of persecution and shared values, Mormons tended to vote as a bloc, often building enough of a presence to dominate local politics, along with wielding considerable economic influence in the region. The “Mormon problem” eventually led to bitter feelings and ultimately violence.

On October 27, 1838 the governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs, issued Missouri Executive Order 44, also known as the “Mormon Extermination Order,” which stated that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace—their outrages are beyond all description.”

Three days later, a renegade militia unit attacked a Mormon settlement at Haun’s Mill, resulting in the death of 18. Mormons were forced to leave their property and flee to Illinois only to be forced to flee again and eventually settle in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Extermination Order was not formally rescinded until 1976.

Mormons have been at the heart of religious persecution in the United States, whether it be the altering of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment or actual violence.

Although much more accessible and a lot less bitter, Mormons still face persecution for expressing their views and values in the public sphere. California’s Proposition 8 and to a lesser extent, Arizona’s Proposition 102, brought vandalism, violence and the boycotting of Mormon employees and businesses.

Mormons face opposition from the left.

“The current head of the Mormon Church, Thomas S. Monson, known to his followers as ‘prophet, seer and revelator,’ is indistinguishable from the secular plutocratic oligarchs who exercise power in our supposed democracy…” Harold Bloom, The New York Times, November 12, 2011.

Mormons face opposition from the right.

“I believe a candidate who either by intent or effect promotes a false and dangerous religion is unfit to serve. Mitt Romney has said it is not his intent to promote Mormonism. Yet there can be little doubt that the effect of his candidacy—whether or not this is his intent—will be to promote Mormonism.” Warren Cole Smith, Patheos.com, May 24, 2011.

One does not need to Google very far to find conspiracy theories about Mormonism, whether it is a principle ownership of Pepsi Co., more inappropriate claims about our temples or wildly inaccurate claims about our history. In Arizona one needs only to look at the comments of a story that touches on Mormonism to see that these conspiratorial claims and bitter feelings still have legs. Luckily, I do not believe these voices represent a majority of Americans.

While a “Mormon moment” has the potential to bring about greater understanding and harmony, it also has the potential to bring about greater persecution.

There are those on the left who dislike Mormons for their values and involvement in the political arena. There are those on the right who dislike Mormons for the same reasons. I can only hope that the “Mormon moment” brings about greater understanding and does not bring these groups together against Mormonism.

As an actively practicing Mormon, I remain cautiously optimistic about the “Mormon Moment.”

Thomas Grier is a third-year law student at The Ohio State University. A graduate of Arizona State University, Grier writes on constitutional law, politics, and pro-growth policy. 

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