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Why We’re Afraid of Mormons

BU-trained scholar says uninformed prejudice abounds

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow

Why is this man smiling? Anti-Mormon prejudice could hobble Mitt Romney's campaign, a BU-trained scholar warns. Photo by Austen Hufford

By their underwear ye shall know them.

A recent USA Today story highlights how many Americans are “uninformed” about, and “wary” of, Mormonism, put off by such practices as the wearing of blessed undergarments as the sign of full fellowship in the church. And even though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renounced polygamy in the 1890s (with the exception of a militant sliver), some non-Mormons suspect that “fundamentalist groups were somehow hiding in plain sight within the fold of the church,” says scholar Cristine Hutchison-Jones (GRS’11).

In fact, she says: “No one has been more aggressive about prosecuting polygamists in this country in the 20th and 21st century than Mormons.” As for that underwear thing, she notes that other religions invest certain garb with sacred significance. Facts aside, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has alarmed some conservative Christian voters pondering his run for president.

Hutchison-Jones, a Harvard administrator, is not Mormon, but an interest in religious intolerance led her to write her BU doctoral dissertation on “Reviling and Revering the Mormons: Defining American Values, 1890-2008.” (Those years marked the official Mormon abandonment of polygamy and Mitt Romney’s first run for president, respectively.) She began with the assumption that this would be another American story of a minority’s assimilation into, and acceptance by, the mainstream culture. To her surprise, she learned that Mormonism remains “really problematic for a lot of people. The negative images of Mormons far outlasted my expectations.”

Bostonia spoke with Hutchison-Jones about what prejudice against Mormons says about us and the prospects for Romney’s second bid for the White House.

Bostonia: What do Americans in 2012 think of Mormons, and how much of what they think is accurate?

Hutchison-Jones: I think a lot of what Americans think they know about Mormonism is wrong. We think of Sister Wives and Big Love [TV shows about polygamous apostate Mormons]. There’s been a strong theme in the last 30 years in popular representations of Mormons of Mormon violence against non-Mormons, pioneer violence. There was a film in 2007 called September Dawn, about the Mountain Meadows massacre in 1857 [the slaughter of a wagon train by Mormon militia]. It is very historically inaccurate. I have gotten calls from friends and family who catch it on HBO and say, “I learned so much from that movie.”

Why do negative images of Mormons linger?

There are a couple of reasons. You had the rise of evangelical Christianity in politics, and for conservative Protestant Christians, Mormons are not Christians; Mormons are a cult. So you had an increase in the amount of anti-Mormon propaganda coming out of religious communities.

The other people who are uncomfortable with Mormons are socially and politically liberal Americans. Polls ask, would you vote for a Mormon presidential candidate? People who self-identify as liberal have a tendency to say no. There’s a tendency to see Mormons as a hegemony, as if they were en masse in thrall to church leadership. The Moral Majority reached out to Mormons, and because of that association, liberals tend to see Mormons as off-limits. I had to get over some of that myself. That was the expectation I came into my research with. I headed off to the Mormon History Association national conference, and the group of scholars there are by and large Mormon, and they are not in any kind of political lockstep. There’s a wide diversity of opinion.

With the Moral Majority, it seems Mormons were crawling into bed politically with people who had a prejudice against them.

It’s true. In the 1980s, the New York Times didn’t know what to do with Orrin Hatch, who rode into the Senate as a conservative Republican Mormon. Then conservative Republicans proposed a school prayer amendment to the Constitution. He said, “Absolutely not. I am part of a minority religion that has been abused, and I am not going to be party to telling anyone how they should or should not pray.” Hatch famously went on to work with Ted Kennedy for federally funded children’s health care. Mormons have a very strong sense of the common good.

The guys who did South Park did Book of Mormon on Broadway.

I would argue, vulgarity aside, that they have one of the most sympathetic and understanding perspectives on Mormons of contemporary representations. They never talk about polygamy, because they see it as ancient history, which it is.

If there is so much misperception, do universities need to offer more course work on Mormonism?

Any religion-in-the-United States course that’s taught in the department of religion is going to cover it. How well it’s covered, that’s another question. Mormonism usually gets a day. Whether or not you can justify an entire course, because they are less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, might be a little hard. On the other hand, Jews are an extremely small minority, and every university worth its salt has some kind of Judaic studies. And Mormonism is growing by leaps and bounds. The last time I saw a syllabus for [College of Arts & Sciences religion professor] Steve Prothero’s undergraduate course on religion in the U.S., it included Jan Shipps’ book on Mormonism. It isn’t just a one-day passing thing. It’s reaching a point where it probably deserves some discussion in the context of world religion classes.

What do Americans’ views of Mormonism say about our ideals and values?

It boils down to our sense of ourselves as a nation in which church and state are separate. I would argue that Americans aren’t separating all religion from all politics. We’re just not comfortable with groups that don’t fit into a generally moderate, Protestant mold. I’ve got a colleague who did his PhD on images of conservative Christians as villains in Hollywood cinema. You can almost certainly tell in any crime drama that if somebody quotes the Bible, you’re later going to find out that they’re a psychopathic killer.

And we’re nervous about groups who openly say the church should be involved in our politics, whatever that church might be for that group. And Mormons wear their religion on their sleeve. The average Mormon spends something like 20 hours per week in activities at their local congregation. It’s really the core and center of their community, and they are absolutely open that their religion informs their social and political values. And Americans don’t like that.

Do you think Romney might lose the election because of his religion?

I think if Romney loses, it’s going to be for a variety of reasons. And yes, Mormonism may be problematic for him going forward. Conservative voters might be a little less enthusiastic about getting out the vote because they’re nervous that he’s a Mormon, and they’re the ones he needs. And you may find independents who find his politics appealing, but some of them might be put off by the association with Mormonism and the concern that Mormons are all conservatives.

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