It was a fairly typical lunch at an academic conference in the East after the New Hampshire primary in 2008. There was a smattering of endowed professorships and international reputations at the table, perhaps eight academics in all.
Along with the sweet tea and penne pasta came the inevitable skewering of George W. Bush.
"Never has a president experienced such horrible poll approval numbers in the midst of a war," one professor quipped.
"That is, if you overlook Harry Truman," I interjected into an uncomfortable silence.
It was going to be that kind of meal.
Dessert made its appearance and talk turned to the relative merits of the developing college basketball season and presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were hotly debated – the state’s primary promised to be a pivotal one. Then it was onto the Republicans, and Mitt Romney’s name popped up.
"I couldn’t vote for a Mormon," one professor said. There was some polite (or perhaps impolite) head-bobbing. "It’s a cult. Very intolerant, and their opinions about women, and, well ... ” and his voice trailed off.
I mentioned I had just been hired at a college in the West with a sizeable student and local population of Mormons -- Idaho State University, in Pocatello. I wondered rhetorically whether anyone said the same thing in 1960 about voting for John F. Kennedy because he was Roman Catholic. Or for then-Senator Obama because he is African-American. There was that same uncomfortable silence again. I think they felt sorry for me.
I’ve attended numerous scholarly conferences since that lunch where Mormonism has been discussed, and it is amazing to confront snide and disdainful comments and even overt prejudice from intellectually and sophisticated academics. And it seems perfectly acceptable to express this bias. Mormons are abnormal, outside the mainstream; everybody knows that. They don’t drink alcohol and coffee. Their women are suppressed. They don’t like the cross, and their most holy book seems made up. And there’s that multiple-wives thing. At one session involving a discussion of Utah’s history, several dismissive comments were spoken, rather blithely and without any sense of embarrassment. Belittling comments were made about Mormons' abstemiousness, and there was a general negative undercurrent. The LDS Church was referred to as the Mormon Church, something many members object to. They don’t mind being called Mormons, but their church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or LDS Church. At least some of the professors who were making these remarks knew that.
Yes, Mormons do not embrace the cross as a symbol of Christianity, but it is because they consider it representing state-sanctioned execution and intense suffering. I regard it as a sacrifice on my behalf. Who’s right? Various Christian denominations think that during communion the wine and wafers actually are transformed into the body and blood of Christ – and over the centuries Christians have been derided as cannibals. I was raised to believe that the Eucharist represents the sacrifice of Jesus. Nothing more than different perspectives and beliefs.
Mormons are excoriated in popular culture (see: "The Simpsons") for the way their church was created by someone who was kind of a con man. And the translation of the Book of Mormon was accomplished with a hat. And the Golden Tablets have been lost. Hmmm. The stone tablets of the Ten Commandments were misplaced, too. And a burning bush talking? Really? It comes down to faith, as it should. Not some sort of ignorant bigotry.
Many of the academics consider themselves liberal, socially responsible, and broad-minded individuals, the repository of the best in America. They’re proud of themselves for voting for Barack Obama (a bit too smug maybe?). They would splutter and bluster and be generally outraged to be considered prejudiced. None would consider saying anything similar about African-Americans, Muslims, Jews, Native Americans . . . well, you get the idea. But anti-Mormonism is part of the same continuum that contains discrimination against any group. Why, then, is it allowable publicly express bias against Mormons?
In 2009, The Daily Beast compiled a listing of the top 25 safest and 25 most dangerous college campuses in America, based on two-year per capita data from 9,000 campuses with at least 6,000 students. The two states with the highest proportion of Mormons did pretty well in the safest category: #5 was Idaho State University, Pocatello, where I work; #13 was Utah State University, Logan, and #17 was Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. No Utah or Idaho schools were on the most dangerous list.
And yet, nestled in the midst of all the good publicity, was this comment about BYU:  "Joseph Smith’s golden plates would have been safe at Brigham Young." Would the Daily Beast have said this: “The tablets of the Ten Commandments would have been safe at Brandeis University" or "at Notre Dame University?” Not very likely. But this sort of flippant and biased comment about Mormons is somehow socially acceptable. Responsible people don’t use "Indian giver" anymore (and we shouldn't). But we Welch on deals and get away Scot-free. I have a sprinkling of Welsh and Scottish blood in me, and I don't appreciate those comments.
So what, exactly, is so awful about being Mormon?
Utah is about 72 percent Mormon, so it's a pretty good representation of Mormonism. Among the 50 states, Utah has the lowest child poverty rate, the lowest teen pregnancy rate, the third-lowest abortion rate, the third-highest high school graduate rate at 94 percent, the highest scores on Advanced Placement exams, fewest births to unwed mothers (also the highest overall birthrate), lowest cancer rate, lowest smoking rate, lowest per capita rate of alcohol use, and, arguably, the most comprehensive and universal state health insurance system in the U.S.
Furthermore, Mormons as a group have the lowest rates of violence and depression among religious groups, are seven times less likely to commit suicide (if active church members), and have the lowest divorce rates of any social-religious group. Sixty-five percent of Utah residents have personal computers, the highest penetration rate in the country. Crime has decreased in the state of Utah by anywhere from 15-18 percent over the past 10 years.
Mormon women are more likely to be employed in professional occupations than Catholic or Protestant women (similar to Jewish women) and more likely to graduate from college than Catholic or Protestant women (but less than Jewish women). One survey indicated Mormon women experience more orgasms and are more satisfied with their married lives than non-Mormons.
Plenty of religious groups – from Orthodox Jews to Orthodox Muslims to various mainstream Christian denominations – do not allow women full participation in the life of their church and communities. But disparaging Roman Catholics, for instance, because their church does not allow female clergy, isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to that faith. Yes, Mormon women wear less revealing clothing – no plunging necklines and short-shorts. But is modesty a bad thing?
Glenn Beck is a Mormon, but so is Harry Reid. Other famous Mormons are or were: Harmon Killebrew, Jack Dempsey, J. W. Marriott, Gladys Knight, the Osmonds, Butch Cassidy, and Eldridge Cleaver. What does that tell you about Mormonism? Absolutely nothing.
Sure, many people find it annoying to have Mormon missionaries knock on their doors. But what kind of moral and religious conviction must it take to devote up to two years of your life in service to a higher calling, whether it be community service or religious proselytizing? Isn’t this the sort of commitment we want to encourage in young people, who are too often accused of being selfish and jaded? Having students who have been to Mongolia, Paraguay, and Finland enrich my classes, not diminish them.
At about 13 million members, Mormons are a pretty large cult. So what is so bad about this “cult?” And a cult growing at almost exactly the same rate, decade by decade, as the original Christian church in the 1st and 2nd centuries. It makes no sense, but then bigotry doesn’t. Who wouldn’t want to be on those lists? Seems like good things to be, even if you can’t drink coffee and beer, wear more than one earring per ear, grow a beard (frowned upon only if you want to move up the church hierarchy), and show lots of cleavage. You can have as much hot chocolate and ice cream as you want, though, and I have embraced this provision enthusiastically.
When I first moved to Pocatello, I lived in a cul de sac and seven of my nine neighbors belonged to the LDS Church. Nobody tried to convert me. They invited me to church picnics – no pressure. My next-door neighbor spent nearly two hours one weekday morning (he was late to work) helping me restore my snow blower to life after five years in the humid South. Another helped flush and fix my sprinkler system. A third returned my dogs after they’d escaped. Several just showed up with family members to help me move in. A fourth one tossed me the keys to his Cadillac after the transmission in my Suburban disassembled on my driveway. "Bring it back when you don’t need it anymore," he said.
These are not the faces of intolerance and prejudice.
No. Those faces are in the academic mirror.
I was raised as a member of the United Church of Christ – the same denomination as President Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright – and my sister is an ordained minister in the denomination. I am now Episcopalian. An uncle and aunt and several of my first cousins are Mormons; the first was converted while stationed with the Marine Corps in Hawaii.
Just why is it socially acceptable to denigrate and trivialize and insult a class of people as a class of people? They had a name for that sort of behavior and system in the South a few decades back. You may remember it. It was called Jim Crow.
Thomas C. Terry is associate professor of mass communication at Idaho State University.