Why is it OK to to be prejudiced against Mormons?
You can’t be openly racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic in America. But anti-Mormon? Go for it. Maybe a White House run by Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman will shine enough light on actual Mormons to make us put aside the fears and fantasies about them.
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Consider the award-winning Broadway show “The Book of Mormon,” which depicts Mormon missionaries as naïve and sexually repressed interlopers in Africa. Again, try to imagine a hit play that portrayed Jews or Muslims in such an unflattering light, or that satirized their sacred texts in its title. A Broadway hit called “The Talmud” or “The Koran,” embraced by New York’s liberal glitterati? Not going to happen.Skip to next paragraph
Or take Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book, “Under the Banner of Heaven,” which focused upon polygamy and murder in a breakaway Mormon sect. Can we really believe that the book’s success – especially among liberals – has nothing to do with their anti-Mormon prejudice?
And the prejudice goes way back, to the founding of Mormonism and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint itself. After publishing the real “Book of Mormon,” based on the revelations inscribed on golden plates that he allegedly unearthed in Western New York, Joseph Smith was forced to flee to Ohio. After a mob tarred and feathered him, Smith took his flock to Missouri.
But the state’s governor issued an “order of extermination” – yes, it was really called that – against the Mormons, whose property was confiscated or destroyed. So they fled again, across the Mississippi River to Nauvoo, Illinois. Smith was then killed in jail by a mob in nearby Carthage, Ill. in 1844.
Brigham Young then led the Mormons west, to a place where he thought no one would bother them: The Great Salt Basin. He was wrong. In 1857, President James Buchanan declared the Utah territory “in rebellion” and sent federal troops to remove Young as governor.
The problem was the Mormons’ practice of “plural marriage” or polygamy, which was never as dominant as critics said: By most estimates, between 20 and 30 percent of Mormon families were polygamous. And the church officially renounced the practice in 1890, paving the way for Utah’s statehood.
But Americans won’t let the Mormons forget it. When pollsters ask American evangelical Protestants to describe Mormons in a single word, the most common answer is still “polygamy.” Again, though, it’s not just conservatives who trade in these stereotypes. Polygamy was the central theme of the recently concluded five-season HBO series “Big Love,” which was a big hit among the liberal cognoscenti.
No matter what our political affiliation, then, we’re still mocking Mormons. Perhaps a run for the White House by Romney – or by fellow Mormon, Jon Huntsman – will shine enough light on actual Mormons to make us put aside the fears and fantasies about them.
They really do believe that stuff, you know. And it’s OK.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”