Every Mormon should be offended by the recent WSJ article titled Muslims, Mormons and Liberals by Bret Stephens; certainly more offended than by the Book of Mormon musical which he cites. How so? Let me count the ways:
1. To the extent that this article is complimentary to Mormons, it is an argument of convenience. Stephens offers a typical “model minority” argument that pits one minority group against another, in this case religious minorities. His is no defense of Mormon forbearance, however. Rather, Stephens uses Mormons as a convenient foil for his misguided attack on the President’s response to the Innocence of Muslims trailer that has caused so much unrest in the Middle East. This type of argument is the intellectual equivalent of a parent asking an unruly child why he can’t be more like his well-behaved older sibling. And as any well-behaved older sibling will tell you, being used in this way is unwelcome praise.
2. Stephens appears to know less about Mormons than he does about Muslims and liberals. Mormons do not find the goody-two-shoes, straight-laced caricature commonly used to depict them offensive. Most active Mormons would probably just shrug and concede the point. If you DO want to offend Mormons, however, just call them a cult and suggest that they are not “true” Christians, as Pastor Robert Jeffress did only last year in a politically motivated speech meant to undermine Mitt Romney’s candidacy. No, Mormons won’t burn your house down nor assault your embassy in response, but you should expect an exhaustive explication of the council of Nicaea and a pointed reading of Acts 7:55. The point being that it’s not liberals who have a history of offending Mormons, it’s evangelical conservative, aka today’s Republican party.
3. Stephens treats all Mormons as if they are one homogenous whole. While it’s true that Utah is among the most conservative states in the union (both politically and socially), it is simply inaccurate and lazy to assume all Mormons hold politically conservative beliefs. At my congregation in Maryland I see bumper-stickers representing libertarian, Republican, Green, and Democratic parties, all happily coexisting in the same house of worship. I would argue that the (unfortunately) strident conservative politics found in Utah has more to do with regional sentiments than religious ones. Lets not forget that in many ways Arizona makes Utah look like the soul of moderation, with Wyoming and Idaho close behind. Attend a Mormon church outside of Utah and you will find a congregation much more heterogeneous than you may expect. Consider, for example, that Harry Reid, the fire-brand liberal leader of the Democrats in the senate, is a Mormon. Didn’t know that? Yeah, didn’t think you did. Why didn’t you? Because there’s no religious test for office in the Democratic party, unlike the GOP (see #2). Stephens’ argument only makes sense if you see every Mormon as a modest middle aged white man, and every Muslim as radical, violent and angry–conflations that don’t work in either case.
4. This is a general point, but it should still offend any thinking American. No one is bombing Utah. The government of Utah has not been destabilized by an invading force since, well, Mormon’s invaded the territory 150 years ago (sorry Ute nation). How then can it be surprising that, when offended, Mormons roll with the punch? To compare the behavior of Muslims in the Middle East post revolution to Mormons living in stable and staid Utah is simply ridiculous. No one who treats the issue of Muslim violence seriously can divorce the violent and unstable conditions of the region (for which the US bears more than a little blame) from the religious sentiments of the population. That is to say, if you think that anger at America is ONLY because some jerk made an offensive video, then you have no business, Mr. Stephens, presenting yourself as an expert on the region.
5. Related to #2, The Book of Mormon musical is not offensive to Mormons; it is an affirmation of their faith, not a denigration. Yes it’s vulgar, and the theological tenets of the Mormon faith are satirized, but the core of what it is to be Mormon: optimistic, community focused, spiritual, family oriented, and a person of faith, are all championed in this musical (much to several reviewers’ dismay–see the NYRB review for an example). In no way can the trailer for The Innocence of Muslims be understood as anything other than a small-minded screed directly intended to offend members of the Muslim faith. The comparison between The Book of Mormon musical and The Innocence of Muslims, like much in this article, suggests that Stephens knows little to nothing about either.
6. Stephens uses the general mockery of Mormons in popular media as evidence of the so-called war on Christians. He writes, “That it’s okay to concede the fundamentalist premise that religious belief ought to be entitled to the highest possible degree of social deference—except when Mormons and sundry Christian rubes are concerned.” Are you kidding me? Christian faiths that literally give sermons on why Mormons are not Christians are now to be conflated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? I call bull shit.
So, Mr. Stephens, thanks for pointing out that Mormons aren’t violent murderers and can tolerate insults to their faith, but next time you want a patsy for a column that is as lazy as it is uninformed, please choose someone else’s religious community to misrepresent. I hear the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a quirk or two, perhaps try them.