“What the Mormons do, seems to be excellent,” according to Charles Dickens’s 19th-century journal Household Words, “what they say, is mostly nonsense.”
Since the days of Dickens, Mormons have been occasionally portrayed as virtuous despite their “strange” beliefs. Yet, those who study Mormonism closely often come to appreciate that distinct Latter-day Saint behavior is strongly tethered to distinct Latter-day Saint theology.
Writing in The Atlantic this week, Kurt Andersen praises members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormons for their “sincere commitment to leading virtuous lives” while simultaneously snickering at their “extreme and strange” beliefs.
There is, of course, a long and rather ignoble tradition of simultaneously praising and mocking Mormons. In the throes of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt sent off a friendly missive to Winston Churchill and his wife. Roosevelt noted his “very high opinion of the Mormons” while also taking the opportunity to poke fun at Mormon polygamy, which had officially ended in 1890.
FDR’s ribbing was playful, but Missouri’s extermination order against Mormons in the mid-19th century was not. Nor was the federal confiscation of LDS Church property or the proposed immigration ban against Latter-day Saints in the late-19th century.
Religious minorities can be prone to taking offense too easily. And a persecution complex helps no one. But neither does trading in casual Mormon mockery. “You’d be surprised,” Harvard Law School’s Noah Feldman once observed, “by how many people pride themselves on having no prejudices at all but preserve a little place in their heart for this kind of soft anti-Mormon prejudice.”
Even after Governor Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency brought immense media attention to the LDS Church, the Pew Research Center found that barely half of Americans understand that Mormonism is a “Christian faith.”
And while 7 or 8 percent of Americans say they wouldn’t vote for an otherwise qualified black, Hispanic, or female presidential candidate, fully 18 percent of Americans still say “they would not vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who happens to be a Mormon.” The figure is “virtually the same as the 17 percent who held this attitude in 1967.” Mormons today would evidently fare better than, say, an atheist or Muslim candidate, but the remarkably persistent numbers since 1967 are telling.