Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Mormons, the Media, and Me

For reasons I can't quite figure out, Mormons have been getting a lot of media coverage lately. From cable TV to obscure blogs (hi!), everybody's talking about Mormons and talking about people talking about Mormons. Frankly it's nice to go beyond cheap polygamy jokes and to actually be a part of the national conversation to some extent. Still, between the multitude of media outlets, talking heads, commentators, journalists, bloggers, and trolls, some controversial stuff has managed to find its way out there. Some of that stuff is uncomfortable and even unpleasant. Some of it doesn't bother me too much. Some of it does. Here are a few thoughts on the matter.

Things I am Officially Okay with:

"Are Mormons Christian?"
An old sectarian debate enters the public square. Mormons, of course, self-identify as Christian and contemporary Christians - especially conservative evangelicals - disagree. I am fine with this debate, because it plays into larger, more interesting questions like what Christianity means and even broader ideas about ownership of words and how they're used to mark group identities. There is a lot of naivety on both sides, from Mormons who don't understand the doctrinal and cultural issues at stake when mainstream Christians disparage their Christian credentials to the same mainstream Christians who uncritically assume definitions of Christianity that ignore the historical realities of how their supposed-orthodoxy came about. To me it's a fascinating, if sometimes frustrating, discourse (the "Christian/Cult" argument is the bastardized, idiot National Enquirer version). And of course the Christianity question parallels the LDS relationship with fundamentalist Mormons on what "Mormon" means and who owns that word, so double fun!

Mormons and Women / Mormons and Minorities
This is an area where a lot of church members become indignant, especially when sloppy critics paint the church solely as a parochial club for white men in Utah and not a huge international organization with millions of members. Nevertheless, the church does has an uncomfortable history with race that deserves to be examined. Explanations that suffice in regular church discussion won't satisfy a political world that ignores premises of priesthood, prophesy, and revelation. And attitudes about women, especially in gender roles and leadership capabilities, are by church leaders' admission out of step with modern values, and so deserve scrutiny. If we're going to be in the world, the world gets its say too.

Strange Doctrines
Mormons believe some weird stuff. The Garden of Eve in Missouri? Ancient Jews in fourth-century upstate New York? A polygamist prophet who seems an awful lot like a philanderer? Future godhood? Plus there are embarrassing folk doctrines like black skin as a curse and the inerrant, divine origin of capitalism (please let these doctrines be false...) Thoughtful commentators have noted that Mormon eccentricity stems as much from its newness as anything - few Christians sputter in outrage over Old Testament strangeness - but if people want to know what Mormons believe then there's a lot more than what Preach My Gospel says, and we don't get to be the sole gatekeepers of how that information is disseminated. Unfortunately the result is plenty of sensationalizing and demonizing from critics, but I believe it's healthy to have more information out there on a historically secretive church. It could even help members be prepared to explain aspects of faith beyond the basics to inquisitive friends.

Things I am Not Okay with:

This kind of thing drives me nuts. It's common knowledge, to those who have done cursory research, that Mormons refer to outsiders as Gentiles. And maybe that's the Journal of Discourses. Is there any informal situation where modern Mormons call non-members "Gentiles" anymore? Maybe it's a stupid, pedantic point but to me it's a red flag: "Warning, this person has little firsthand experience with contemporary Mormonism." It's probably unfair to expect nonmorm...excuse, me, Gentile writers to know Mormon idiosyncrasies and vocabulary very well, but it never fails to annoy when I see widespread cultural norms distorted or misrepresented, especially when plenty of Mormons would be willing to set things straight.

Church vs Temples
This is another error that usually comes from ignorance rather than malice, but it's also something where a little research goes a long way. I recently read an article asserting that nonmembers are not allowed in LDS churches while extolling the extensive missionary program. Presumably we're making investigators sit outside or something, making them press their faces to the windows to read the speakers' lips. Maybe that's why so many high-baptizing missions are in warm climates.

Fanciful LDS Hierarchies
Again, vocabulary, and again, research! I've seen several authors wonder whether Mitt Romney's high position in LDS leadership means the church is secretly sponsoring his campaign. Because, you know, the synod of stake presidents decreed it.  Analyzing the church's role in politics is valid. Doing so in stupid ways is aggravating.

Umm, Guys, I'm RIGHT HERE
This is something Joanna Books has touched on at Religion Dispatches - in this ongoing conversation about Mormonism, Mormons are - believe it or not - part of the discussion. You can't talk about Mormons like they're not in the room. We're all over the place. Big Mormons, small Mormons, church-representing Mormons, scholarly Mormons, scholarly nonmormons who study Mormons, ex-Mormons, super-active Mormons, liberal Mormons, literal-believing Mormons, fundamentalist Mormons, gay Mormons, poor Mormons, feminist Mormons. There are Mormons for any occasion! And that's why there is no excuse for not talking Mormon opinions into account, even if you want to disagree with them. But disagreeing is much easier when you lump all Mormons together. To hacks like Robert Jeffries and Bill Maher Mormons are so out there, so different, and so dumb that we're not even worth having a dialogue with in any of our varieties. Mormons are a homogenous, scary Other, to be mocked or attacked, not to be heard or spoken with. If these critics bothered looking, they'd likely find some Mormons they agreed with on a lot of issues. They might even start a few conversations. But I don't expect this to change because it's just easier to label and demonize than understand and talk. Mormons, they're no good; forget 'em?* Just like those treasonous liberals, and those ignorant conservatives, and those snooty intellectuals, and those terrorist muslims,  those Catholics, those homosexuals, those young people, those rich people, those Europeans, and all those other -ites too.

*In my mind this sentence sounds like a George Carlin rant so if your values permit please substitute the profanity of your choice here to get my full meaning, and add a few more for effect.