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Why Is It So Tempting to Make Fun of Mormons?

Sacred underwear, baptizing Holocaust victims, gods of their own planets: the mainstream media can't get enough of mocking LDS.

Sacred underwear, baptizing Holocaust victims, gods of their own planets.

When some of America’s most celebrated pundits and public intellectuals talk about Mormons, these are the images that are summoned. Ironically in this “Mormon Moment”—signaled by  a hit Broadway musical, polygamous housewives on TLC, and of course two Mormon presidential candidates—Mormons, long considered quintessential “outsiders” to mainstream American culture, today find themselves at the center of the American zeitgeist. Yet it is the Mormons’ supposed theological weirdness that is the main attraction.

As Joanna Brooks has  noted in Religion Dispatches, the  New York Times recently featured Harold Bloom’s musings on how a President Romney would govern a country, and a planet, from which he would in the afterlife depart,  becoming the god of his celestial body. More planet talk happened just last week on the  Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Brainstorm Blog.” Michael Ruse, philosopher of biology, asserted that it is legitimate not to vote for a presidential candidate whose theology is “ totally barmy. We can become gods with our own planets!… No coffee and tea is bad enough. But the underwear!” In October, in a column called “ Anne Frank, a Mormon?” Maureen Dowd offered (via Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens) the full rundown of Mormon “weirdness,” from Joseph Smith’s uneasy reputation to the “Jewish dust-up”: the posthumous baptism of Jews. 

Casual assertions of knowledge about Mormon theology have dismayed longtime scholars of Mormonism. UNC’s Laurie Maffly-Kipp recently told me that “while seeming to archly critique the evangelical and atheist attacks on Mormonism,” Dowd’s column in particular represented “one pithy stroke of ignorance masquerading as informed opinion.”

A Desert of Belief

Critics like Dowd, Bloom, and Ruse would not reduce Catholicism to Popery, Hinduism to the worship of cows, or Islam to the promise of seventy virgins for jihadi martyrs. Why is Mormonism different?

There are two answers to this question.

The first is religious. It is the Mormons’ belief system, a system at odds with a "secular age" when actual, as opposed to metaphorical, belief is no longer accepted as reasonable. At a talk last winter at the Harvard Law School, the don of Mormon letters, Richard Bushman, asserted that most Americans live in “a desert of belief.” The demands of secular rationalism have deforested the transcendent and supernatural even in the spiritual worlds of most religious Americans. Mormons on the other hand occupy “a jungle of belief.”

The audacity of the truth claims that Mormonism makes (angels delivering golden plates to a boy in early 19th-century upstate New York, modern-day prophets and everyday saints receiving revelations from Heavenly Father) requires that Mormon believers occupy a rich and imaginatively demanding spiritual world.

But even in this “jungle of belief,” Mormons don’t think on a daily basis about the theology behind their sacred underwear. They don’t pine for their own planets. Such obsession with what Mormons believe, even among America’s literati, belies the fact that Mormonism is foremost a belief system in action. Perhaps a concise summary of Mormon practical divinity comes from the late Church President, Spencer W. Kimball: “As God’s offspring, we have His attributes in us. We are gods in embryo, and thus have an unlimited potential for progress and attainment.” Still, at least according to the dictates of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (LDS) current leadership, tapping into this unlimited potential takes a fairly workaday form: participating in time-consuming church service, forming heterosexual couples with the purpose of raising faithful Mormon children, and succeeding in the corporate world.

The second reason for the ongoing discussion of Mormons’ “weird” beliefs is political. Mormons are the last (or at least the latest) religious “other” to confront the heart of American politics, to deem themselves American enough to ascend to the presidency. Mormon scholar Newell Bringhurst told me recently that that the current public debates over Mormonism reminds him very much of the debate over Kennedy’s Catholicism in 1960. “Would Kennedy take orders from the Vatican?” many leaders from the American mainline churches anxiously asked. “No!”, assured Kennedy in his famous speech to a gathering of leading Protestant ministers in Dallas two months before the election. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”