Bret Stephens Offends Mormons; No One Dies.

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.

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8 thoughts on “Bret Stephens Offends Mormons; No One Dies.

  1. I actually really appreciated his article and found it refreshing a non-member would make that connection. I know it probably wasn’t so much for Mormons as it was to show the Obama administration’s inconsistencies, but I nevertheless was grateful for his efforts.

    I found the Book of Mormon Musical to be offensive and I know most of my Mormon peers have the same sentiment. I hold no ill will toward those who enjoy it and those who produced it, but I think it’s erroneous to assume Mormons aren’t offended by it.

  2. Hi Kirk, but don’t you find the comparison between a Mormon living in safe Utah and a Muslim living in war-torn Egypt/Libya a bridge too far? Are you willing to say that if you swapped the religions’ geographies that there wouldn’t be Mormons marching in the street in defense of their faith?

    I grant you that the Book of Mormon musical can be offensive (particularly in its language and humor), but (forgive me for splitting hairs) is it insulting to the Mormon faith? I’ve see the show and I don’t think it is. I think it affirms the best things about Mormonism even as it interrogates the faith’s shaky theology. Would you not agree that at least in this it is much different from the Innocence of Muslims, and is thus a false comparison?

    BTW, we both know that when The Book of Mormon comes to SLC it will sell out its entire run and be the talk of the town, so while there will be some Mormons (perhaps even a majority) who will find it offensive, there will be many, many who will enjoy it, though perhaps they will have to plug their ears at times.

  3. Your points are immaterial to the main point of the article; that freedom of speech is a principle worth defending, and that the President of the United States, as the defender of the constitution, ought to fulfill his responsibility.

    Also, not(italicized) taking offence at the opinions of others is precisely what Stephen’s is congratulating us for. I see no reason to start doing so now, as you suggest.

    • Hi Tim: I concede the point that I’m not interested in the article’s main argument. Rather, I’m concerned with how Stephens makes his argument. As I say, I think it’s a lazy “model minority” argument that pits one religious minority against another. Stephen essentially points at Mormons and asks Muslims why they can’t behave like the good folks in Salt Lake City. Setting aside the many ways in which this is a false comparison (covered in my IP), I’m offended that he would use my religious heritage in such a nakedly political way. Also, the fact that he doesn’t understand what does offend Mormons (accusations of being a cult), suggests to me that he didn’t do much research before writing the article.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. Thank you for writing this. I’m devout LDS and couple of my liberal (!) LDS friends have posted links to the Bret Stephens article on Facebook with a thumbs up (yay Mormons! boo Muslims!) I’ve been crying foul–you’re right–the comparison is a false one. If we could rewind to 1857 Utah Territory when Mormons were outside U.S. culture, actively persecuted by the government, and therefore frightened and enraged by any outside provocation (taunts of the Fancher party?) and try to make the comparison between those two *similar* scenarios….there would be no sensational article to write. Extremist minority within a larger religious community violently reacting to non-violent taunts but denounced for their violence by their more moderate co-religionists? Check and check.

    But *modern* Mormons’ political and cultural situation, however imperfect, is nothing akin to what modern Middle Eastern Muslims endure and have endured for the last 60 years in their interactions with the West and America in particular. As much as I love reading pieces in the press praising some of the overlooked strengths of my faith community, this article is pandering. Yuck.

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