An Olympic sport: Mormon bashing

BY H.L. ROGERS

With the Olympics in Salt Lake City, all attention has been turned to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the Mormons.

So what are most media outlets saying about members of this church? They’re weird. They like wholesome things, they marry young, they have lots of kids, and their membership is growing fast. The media says they’re mischievous, or worse yet, devious and mysterious.

Why? Because no one likes someone who is successful at being different. No one likes the young exec that comes in and has greater success than the old establishment doing things completely differently.

All mainstream religions in America are losing members, but Mormonism just keeps growing. As of this year, it is the fifth-largest church in America.

Conservatives like Alan Keyes want to claim it’s just the liberal media picking on those clean cut, conservative Mormons. The only problem is that it’s not just liberals that love to hate Mormons — it’s the religious right as well. Mormons aren’t as conservative as people think. Now, a lot of Mormons are strictly conservative, but the religion has a long, rich history of liberalism that dominated it until the 1970s.

With the coming of the Olympics to their Vatican, Mormons have shown up in The New Yorker, U.S. News and World Report, Time, the Nation and most major newspapers. They have also shown up on “Politically Incorrect,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Larry King Live” and “Alan Keyes Is Making Sense.” In almost all of these forums, they have been painted as America’s bastard child. The New Yorker depicts them as a mysterious group that isn’t as clean as they want us to believe. Bill Maher played the old polygamy card for ratings (never mind that Mormons haven’t practiced polygamy in over a hundred years). The Nation tried to show them as close-minded homophobes with a 19th century lust for vigilantism. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell like to play them off as a cult.

Does Mormon bashing come from the secular left or the religious right? In short, it comes from both. And perhaps it comes because of the Mormon success. It is a religion that was run out of Ohio by mob force, then out of Missouri by an executive extermination order and then out of Illinois by a mix of private citizens and local government. Once in Utah, Mormons were kept from statehood, and the U.S. government seized almost all of their assets. All this because they had great success in being different — they bucked their heads against the Christian establishment in America. They never played by the rules set forth by other religions. Once in Utah they practiced strange things like polygamy, which gave those who had been spurned (often those religions that had lost a lot of members to this burgeoning religion) a chance to get even. Perhaps this is oversimplification, but it does appear to at least be part of the reason Mormons have historically been shunned.

In the end the Mormon bashing comes from both sides. Mormons just can’t seem to fit in. The Religious Right hates them because Mormons won’t water down their religion to fit Protestant norms and Mormons aren’t anti-abortion enough for the Right. But the secular left can’t really like Mormons either — they believe in modern revelation, for heaven’s sake, and refuse to ordain women to the priesthood (a part of the church’s hierarchy), though women hold other leadership positions in the lay clergy (all clergy in the church is lay) and run the largest religious women’s group in the world.

They have faced the same problem since 1830: Mormons won’t play by America’s rules, but they still have great success. In fact, Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in America and one of the fastest growing in the world. Even though Mormons were called racist for many years (though they didn’t have anything on the racism of more classic Protestantism), they have had great success in the South and in Africa. Mormons also claim to be the only true religion. All of these factors, as well as the fact that Mormons seem a little too happy, a little too clean and a little too successful, irritate other Americans. Mormons are disproportionately represented in both the House and the Senate. Mormons can point to high-profile success stories like Mitt Romney, Dave Checketts and Bill Marriot. Steve Young is a Mormon (but forget that Donny Osmond is, too). All this adds up to make Mormonism the religion people love to hate.

By the way, did I mention? I’m a Mormon.

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