On two Sundays a month I teach a spiritual lesson to a group of high priests (mostly older men) in my congregation. Today we began with a spirited discussion of the new Pew survey, which shows that 46% of American Mormons feel that there is a lot of discrimination against Mormons in the United States. This survey could not be more timely, given the presidential campaigns of two (soon to be one) Mormon candidates, the award-winning “The Book of Mormon” Broadway play, the legions of Twilight fans inspired by LDS author Stephenie Meyer, and the misguided followers of Glenn Beck. Are Mormons winning hearts and minds in America, or is the country’s so-called “Mormon Moment” a myth?
I don’t deny for a moment that anti-Mormon sentiment exists in this country. Growing up Mormon in Mississippi or South Carolina is undoubtedly different from being raised in Utah or Idaho. In some ways, obsession with LDS beliefs and practices is more widespread than in previous decades. Mitt Romney’s religion has been publicly attacked during the last two presidential campaigns, while his father’s faith was rarely raised during his gubernatorial campaign and service in the Cabinet in the 1960s and early 1970s. Ditto for J. Reuben Clark, the former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico in the 1930s who rose to become the second-ranking LDS Church official.
However, it’s important to distinguish hostility to our faith from opposition to our actions. I grew up in a small city in central Michigan and was the only Mormon in my high school graduation class of 389 students. I can only recall two anti-Mormon actions directed at me and my family. The first offender was my high school guidance counselor, who gave anti-Mormon literature to my Catholic girlfriend and actively discouraged her from converting to Mormonism. The second was an Evangelical family friend who came to my sister’s wedding reception at a hotel but refused to attend her wedding because it took place in a Mormon chapel. In both of these cases the men objected to LDS beliefs, which is clearly a form of anti-Mormonism.
Here in southern California, home to hundreds of thousands of Mormons and a live-and-let-live philosophy, there is little discrimination against LDS doctrines and religious practices. Actions, however, are another story. During the Proposition 8 campaign to eliminate state-sanctioned gay marriage, I was regularly attacked by advocates of tolerance. Some of them even contacted my employer, a Jewish organization, in an effort to have me fired for daring to oppose gay marriage (to their credit, my supervisors reminded the tolerant folks that the First Amendment was still in effect). As much as I disliked their actions, I have to admit that they were taken in response to the actions, not beliefs, of LDS Church members, including me.
The activists who attempted to storm the Mormon Temple in Los Angeles were in a class of their own, but for the most part our opponents objected to our actions, not our theology. Were their protests inspired by anti-Mormonism or anti-anti-gay-marriage-ism? My gut tells me it’s the latter. If Mormons are going to take sides in controversial political campaigns – even for good causes – then we should expect to encounter opposition every step of the way, much of it from people who disagree with us on principle but have no beef with our religion.
Opposition to Mormon political candidates is sometimes viewed by Mormons as prima facie evidence of anti-Mormonism. However, if merely opposing Mormon politicians is an expression of anti-Mormonism, then the Pew survey shows that many Latter-day Saints are anti-Mormon. Mitt Romney got a favorable rating from 86% of Mormons in the survey, three-quarters of whom identified as Republicans. However, only half (50%) of Mormons have a favorable view of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, with LDS Senator Harry Reid getting kudos from only 22% of Mormons (I suspect it’s even lower outside Nevada). The differing levels of support in the LDS community for LDS politicians show that factors other than religion can influence both Mormon and non-Mormon voters to support a given candidate. In Harry Reid’s case, his support for federal funding of Planned Parenthood and protection of the gaming industry in Nevada, inter alia, alienate him from large numbers of his coreligionists.
I was relieved to discover via the Pew survey that just like Jews, this perceived bigotry doesn’t prevent Mormons from being happy: 87% of us are satisfied with our lives today. The Pew Forum summarized the results with the headline “Certain in Their Beliefs, Uncertain of Their Place in Society.” In a day when the opposite is true of so many religious groups, including two large Jewish movements, I am pleased that while I may disagree with some of the survey’s respondents on the extent of anti-Mormonism in our country, we are in agreement that being a Mormon is a recipe for happiness.