Since I wrote for Busted Halo about Mitt Romney’s first run for president in 2008, much has changed in the public landscape regarding knowledge and perceptions of Mormonism. Americans today find themselves swept up in a “Mormon Moment,” thanks to Romney’s second run, Jon Huntsman Jr.’s candidacy, and popular media coverage of The Book of Mormon musical. Rather than depending on Big Love for their (inaccurate) understanding of this world religion, Americans can now find informed reports in sources from the Washington Post to NPR. Still, persistent myths and misperceptions blight even the most well-intentioned reporters’ pieces. The following will help give Busted Halo readers the perspective they need to be informed observers of the “Mormon Moment.”
Myth #1: Mormons Practice Polygamy
Polygamy as an acceptable familial structure was banned by the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1890. Yep, that’s 122 years ago. Members of the modern Church who marry more than one spouse concurrently are excommunicated. For current Mormons, aside from the ancestral linkage some have to the small number of original frontier people who practiced it, polygamy has little relevance in day-to-day life.
Why The Myth Exists: In an era of Victorian morals, polygamy was understandably a shocking and newsworthy characteristic. The confusion persists because extremist groups with similar organizational names continue the practice. The Church’s struggle to move past this titillating trait of its early days and disassociate itself from the extremist splinter groups remains a tremendous public relations challenge. Additionally, because our doctrine currently allows widowed and divorced men to remarry (serially) and thus be married — or “sealed” — for all eternity to more than one wife, we struggle doctrinally to reconcile how these multiple sealings will be honored after earthly life.
Myth #2: Mormons Aren’t Christian
When confronted with the assertion that Mormons aren’t Christian, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints exasperatedly roll their eyes and say, “Just look at the name of our church!” We indeed consider Jesus Christ to be at the center of our worship: We acknowledge him as our personal Savior and Redeemer; we honor the Bible as the word of God; we commemorate his sacrifice every week in our sacramental worship. In fact, our additional scripture, the Book of Mormon, which is itself the reason for some of the “not Christian” allegations, is subtitled “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” as it tells of Christ’s visit to the Americas after his resurrection in Judea.
Why The Myth Exists: The dispute around Mormonism’s kinship with traditional Christian denominations is, at its heart, a theological issue. Mormonism is not a creedal denomination, meaning that our doctrine doesn’t conform to the principles codified in documents such as the Nicene Creed. Specifically, we believe that God the Father and Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are three separate personages, with God the Father and Jesus Christ having substantive bodies. This runs deeply counter to an understanding of God that uses the Trinity. Some feel our concept of Jesus Christ is so distant from the traditional concept that we should not be claiming membership in the Christian family, but our position is that no group should be excluded from that family if it claims foundation on and adherence to the teachings of the first century Jesus of Nazareth.
Myth #3: Mormons Are All The Same
About two years ago, membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints became larger outside of the United States than inside — with over 30,000 congregations in 176 countries, there are 14.1 million members worldwide, about a third of those speaking Spanish. There’s no way we’re all the same. In fact, you may have noticed the advertising campaign, “I’m a Mormon,” which is the Church’s effort to specifically target this myth. In the campaign, Mormons of various professions, interests and experiences from all over the world help build bridges of common ground with those in the general public through video portraits. We’re fond of noting that, while we might be claiming the Republican nominee for president, we can also claim the Democratic Senate Majority Leader.
Why This Myth Exists: A devoted Mormon’s faith influences what she eats, what she wears, who she marries, how she spends her time. Mormons make these choices not by coercion, but on the belief that they will lead to a happier life and a closer relationship to God. Mormonism professes the continued role of right and wrong and the relevance of commandments. As members, we have to meet certain standards in order to enter our sacred temples and serve in our congregations’ leadership positions. This voluntary obedience, and the possibility of being denied some privileges of worship if we don’t live up to the standards, may appear despotic in this age of self-definition.
Myth #4: Mormon Beliefs Are Way Weirder Than Any Other Religion’s
You’ve probably read something about Mormons over the past few months that raised an eyebrow: Mormons get their own planets! God is actually a man! Joseph Smith was a treasure seeker! While Mormonism is a religion requiring a heightened but willing suspension of disbelief — or, in other words, faith — believers are rewarded with a thorough cosmic vision of where we came from, why we’re here and where we are going that is beautiful and satisfying. And while our claims of angels, buried scripture and Christ on the American continent do sound farfetched to outsiders, we consider them meaningful enhancements to an eternal plan that includes other “farfetched” but more familiar claims, such as resurrection, grace and the virgin birth.
Why The Myth Exists: While some outlandish statements by the media are bogus, many are distortions rooted in truth that make way more sense when put in context. This makes clarifying them a formidable and complex task. Because Mormon beliefs have their foundations in America’s Judeo-Christian orientation, the concepts and vocabulary are recognizable but uncomfortably distinct to Westerners, and thus some may find them more threatening than other cultures’ faiths, such as Eastern religions, that don’t hit nearly so close to home.
A Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey released last week did something that hasn’t been done very often before: rather than asking Americans what they think of Mormons, the survey asked Mormons what they think of themselves. According to the study, 62 percent of American Mormons believe the rest of the country knows little or nothing about their faith. Armed with the preceding myth-busters, Busted Halo students of the Mormon Moment can sift judiciously through the media reports and glean a more accurate understanding of this major religious movement.