Mormon in the Time of Mitt Romney and the Anti-Mormon Backlash
When I first began this column, one of the topics at the forefront of my mind was persecution. It’s a sensitive topic, one that’s tricky to discuss. But as Mitt Romney continues to face criticism that is aimed directly at his faith, the topic feels increasingly relevant to my experience as a religious feminist in the USA. The evidence that many Americans distrust Romney’s faith is everywhere. It’s in discussions about Romney’s ancestral connections to polygamists (how many of us are grateful we’re not held responsible for everything our grandparents and great-grandparents did?), and it’s in articles that portray his faith as a “multi-national corporation.” It shows up in this article about an early-20th-century Mormon congressman who barely made it into congress as a result of his faith. And it shows up in comedy, as demonstrated by this recent clip from The Daily Show:
Trust me, American Mormons are well aware of these discussions. In fact, to understand today’s Mormons, you really need to understand the history of brutal persecution that generations of Mormons once faced at the hands of the American government and their fellow American people. The history is recent enough that it still directly impacts the way we conceive of ourselves. For American Mormons, it also impacts how we view our place in the US, and it’s not unusual to walk into a Sunday School lesson or Sacrament Meeting (our name for a service or Mass) where members share stories about facing and overcoming persecution.
Which is not to say that the threat of persecution manifests itself in fear or paranoia. To the contrary, every time the topic comes up in a lesson, the discussion usually closes with individuals sharing faith-affirming stories about times when those outside the faith supported them, perhaps even preventing persecution. And for most of us who experience religious persecution these days, it doesn’t come with a drunken mob tarring and feathering us or burning down our homes. It comes in the form of teachers, classmates, employers and co-workers mocking us. It comes in the form of awkward job interviews where potential employers illegally ask us about our faith. It’s subtle enough that most of us are never sure if we’re even experiencing persecution or just plain rudeness.
But distrust of our faith is so common in national discourse that most of us are a little cautious. For instance, I currently live in an area that is heavily populated by other LDS people. And even in this Mormon-friendly location, over the past year I have had many conversations with other Mormons who have echoed my own nervousness: as Mitt Romney rises in politics, we wonder, what backlash will we face? And then, the more essential question: how do we respond?
Ultimately, most Mormons want to preserve positive relationships with their neighbors and communities, but we face such a wide and contradictory set of criticisms that there’s no formula on how to diffuse tension while still affirming our faith. Other feminists frequently argue that I belong to “A Male-dominated World”, and many in the Gay Rights Movement find themselves frustrated with the LDS Church’s involvement in Prop 8, as well as the Church’s ongoing stance on homosexuality: not a sin to feel attracted to the same sex, but wrong to act on those feelings. Responding to these critiques is difficult, in large part because the issues at hand are still ongoing in the LDS Church, and you’ll find mixed feelings from individual Mormons. The recent “It Gets Better at Brigham Young University” video illustrates the contradiction and confusion that so many Latter-day Saints share where the Gay Rights Movement is concerned.
But when it comes to responding to issues from the past, it can be even trickier, as BYU professor Randy Bott discovered when he attempted to justify a racist Mormon policy that Church leadership has long since put to rest. When it comes to historical arguments against Mormonism, it sometimes seems that atheists are more forgiving than those of other faiths. When The Book of Mormon Musical came out, the creators repeatedly gave interviews where they explained that they saw Mormonism as no more ridiculous than any other religion – though their audience may miss that nuance. When contrasted with this recent article from a Catholic writer at Patheos.com, “I Am Not a Mormon,” the South Park creators seem downright Mormon-positive.
Despite years of considering how to respond to criticisms on my faith, I have no magical formula, but I have learned that getting angry about a verbal attack on my faith does not change anyone’s mind. I have also learned the importance of remembering that a faith is more than the sum of its parts. Everyone in the world is associated with groups or ancestors who have done horrible things. But in the same way that The Spanish Inquisition doesn’t invalidate Catholicism, polygamists like Romney’s ancestors don’t invalidate Mormonism.