I'm not sure how often a Brigham Young University professor gets published in the New York Times. It's probably rare. But this week the Times published this op-ed by J. Spencer Fluhman, assistant professor of history at BYU, under the provocative title Why We Fear Mormons.
For some reason, Mormons constitute the one significant religious group that many find morally acceptable to mock and denigrate. Anti-Mormonism has been around pretty much since the founding of the church in 1830. Many of the charges put forth by anti-Mormons are based in truths but are also rife with distortions. And any religion can be made to look weird from the outside looking in.
Most anti-Mormon attacks, says Fluhman, come from the secular left and the Evangelical right. "For the left," he writes, "Mormonism often functions as a stand-in for discomfort over religion generally." All religion is bizarre to many secularists. Mormonism is generally unpopular and happens to offer some more peculiar practices, so it makes for a nice foil.
"Anti-Mormon attacks by evangelicals" writes Fluhman, "have betrayed anxiety over the divisions in their movement and their slipping cultural authority as arbiters of religious authenticity." A common response to internal conflict is to foster an obsession with perceived external enemies to force unity via distraction.
Despite differing reasons for attacking Mormons, Fluhman sees a deeper underlying American root to the issue. "Making Mormons look bad helps others feel good. By imagining Mormons as intolerant rubes, or as heretical deviants, Americans from left and right can imagine they are, by contrast, tolerant, rational and truly Christian."
I suppose Fluhman should have written "moral" instead of "Christian" to include secularists.
In other words, people tend to lash out at unpopular Mormons to hide from their own inadequacies, just as bullies harass others in an attempt to elevate their own standing. Anti-Mormons foster a sense of 'other-ness' toward Mormons, viewing them as too unlike themselves to be considered fully accepted participants in society. This is not unlike the way established cultures have traditionally responded to recent immigrants.
Even if the next U.S. president ends up being a Mormon, Fluhman says that "until Americans work through our contradictory impulses regarding faith, diversity and freedom, there is no reason to believe anti-Mormonism will go away anytime soon."
That's OK. Mormons know that it goes with the territory.