What does it take to shatter a stereotype? Advertising executives have their own recipe: cook up a snappy creative campaign, stir in a few press releases, serve in major media centers. This may work for consumer products, but changing the popular perception of a cultural or religious group is a social study of enormous proportions. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is currently engaged in this decades-long process.
With the media coverage of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, all of America is witnessing or participating in the Church’s struggle. Mormons themselves of course hope that one man—one presidential candidate—can change the way the nation perceives their religious community. The stigma of Catholicism was challenged in a less-enlightened age by another Bostonian. Mormons hope such a revolution is happening again. Through all the anger, religious bigotry and misinformation being passed along in the media’s current Mormon mania, the public is at least realizing that Mormons are not Amish, Mennonite, or Quaker. That’s progress. And even if Romney doesn’t make it past the Primaries at the beginning of 2008, he already has the thanks of millions for merely quelling the water cooler jokes about polygamy.
As one of the most enduring religious prejudices in America today, anti-Mormonism holds up as its archetype the provincial, ultra-conservative, fanatic families worshiping a god unacquainted with mainstream Christianity. But the 900,000 Mormons in Brazil would hardly recognize such a family. I don’t recognize that archetype either. I am a native New Yorker, an only child, a graduate of Yale University. I’m a Mormon too. I was born into the church, have loved it and been active in it my whole life. I am married and have two children; in this way, my life mirrors the Mormon ideal. But very little else about me resembles the stereotype: I’ve never lived in Utah, my parents are divorced, and I went back to work after my child was born. I don’t quilt, can fruit, or eat Cool Whip. I don’t even always vote Republican, and I am concerned about electing the best leader for our country, not the guy I’d like to be my bishop.
And yet with all my supposed sophistication, even I feel the weight of the public’s narrow perception. Very few peers with my educational and social background get asked if their husband will marry another wife, and yet I do. Very few peers with my background get asked if their church will excommunicate them for being a working mother, and yet I do. My life-long experience in the church makes these questions sound ridiculous to me. But myths about members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints go uncorrected by the popular media: Mormons practice polygamy. Mormon women can’t work. Mormons do not believe in Jesus Christ. A Mormon leader recently described in a church-wide conference how a leader in a different religion approached him and asked to feel the horns on his head.
My own examples are not as bizarre but similarly tasteless: As I was once at a corporate lunch meeting, a co-worker asked me in front of our entire team to describe my “funny underwear”. He was referring to the undergarments we wear to remind ourselves of our promise to be obedient to God, a similar purpose to the tzitzit, or tassels, that Jewish men wear to remind them of the commandments. Our garments are one of those tantalizingly unfamiliar things about us, but they are actually very regular underclothing. We don’t talk a lot about them simply because we feel they are sacred, which is also why we dress modestly to cover them. (We’re talking no tank tops or mini skirts—nothing too extreme.)
While I didn’t laugh so much at that lunch, I did laugh during the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Games when no less than the New York Times reported that the Olympics were a success because “the Mormons stayed away.”
Who did they think were all the young clean-cut ushers and ticket takers and cleaning crews and waiters and Opening Ceremonies performers? Did they think we were going to march down Main Street with ankle-length skirts, long braids, and broods of children? Mormon jokes, like the ethnically offensive Polish jokes of past generations, are shockingly still acceptable.
I understand why such misconceptions persist. The popular docu-thriller by Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith claimed to be an “insider look at the Mormon church”. More recently, Oprah contributor Martha Beck published her memoirs, Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith in which she claimed to be sexually abused by her father, a revered LDS scholar. Currently, HBO’s hit television show, Big Love, continues to fuel the myth that Church members practice polygamy.
12 Million Strong
I have no doubt that some of the salacious tales related in these books and shows have actually occurred. The membership of the church has exceeded 12 million now, and in a group that size there is bound to be a rotten egg or two, or thousands. Every organization, earthly or heavenly, has challenges managing size, growth and the unmonitored behavior of its individuals. Only the most devoted Catholic would deny the accusations of priestly child molesting, but all Catholics likely cringe when those unfortunate instances overshadow the Church’s inestimable good. Similarly, Krakauer holds up a single anomalous story as a quintessential Mormon life, Beck slanders the entire church with her personal tragedy, and HBO doesn’t seem to mind blurring the line between polygamous weirdos and the 6 million “normal” Mormons in America.
But I don’t entirely blame these tabloid writers for the misunderstanding of the religion. It’s likely that church members themselves contribute to the American public’s negative opinion. Their practice of organizing congregations into social communities called “wards” and being fiercely loyal to their own members makes them feel like an insular and judgmental people. Cultural quirks such as being avid quilt-makers or strange Utah statistics such as having the highest Jell-O and Cool-Whip consumption of any state give Mormons a halo of provincialism. Large, conservative LDS families tend to live outside political and business centers and are therefore mysterious to our urban media.
And of course, the proselytizing army of 60,000 missionaries that currently covers the globe sometimes annoys and imposes in its effort to edify and convert. In this age of electronic connections, I understand that it is startling and perhaps a little frightening to have two strangers appear at the front door of a house, dressed as very few 19-year-old boys do these days: in dark suits, white shirts and ties. Perhaps they are anachronistic, but the tradition of sending missionaries across the globe provides for the missionaries—if not for the people they bother—a life-altering two years away from friends and family in which their integrity and faith in Christ are tested through the crucible of rejection and mockery. Every door that’s slammed in their face makes them even stronger in their commitment, and so their knocking is unlikely to stop anytime soon.