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Outrageous statements about Mormons

It appears that I have succeeded in doing something that I never officially set out to do. I have outraged the other resident John by making the following statement: Evangelicals aside (there's no pleasing some people), I don't think most of the nation really believes that the Mormons take their own faith seriously.

I have been asked to defend said statement and will. Most people think that Mormonism is a big ruse, in the same vein as Scientology. We are not (usually) perceived as horribly deluded(as most people perceive the Jehovah's Witnesses) nor are we just a little outside of mainstream Christianity (perhaps the way in which the Seventh-Day Adventists are perceived). Certainly there are plenty of Evangelicals who are convinced we are going to the devil, but I hold that they are still the minority of those holding opinions regarding Mormons (red-states be durned, or is it blue?).

Look at it from outside of the church, we have a "golden Bible" that a 14-year-old wrote in upstate New York in the 1800's. That doesn't make us much different than all those other aforementioned denominations. Additionally, we have missions, temple ceremonies, temple garments, and who knows what else. We talk about the Book of Mormon as if it was history, yet there is very little (if any) archaeological evidence to support that reading. It is absurd to believe that grown adults who are intelligent and sane would believe and actively pursue such silliness. Maybe if we were Masons, we would be cut some more slack.

In any case, people who actually know Mormons and hang out around us generally come to find that we are not wild-eyed religious fanatics but just folk, roughly the same as anybody else. So, how can such people believe such ridiculous things? Well maybe they don't.

Take Robert Heinlein for instance. In his novel, The Sixth Column (The Day after Tomorrow in some editions) the topic is as jingoistic as they come. The Yellow Devils have come in and taken over America. Let's set that aside for a moment and talk about what he has to say about Mormons. I'll have to paraphrase as I don't have a copy handy. Basically, when the "heros" are preparing a fake religion to spread their weapons amongst the populace, they hit on good ol' SLC as a good place to start. Why? Because the Mormons are familiar with the trappings of cult perhaps (in a temple sense)? No, because the "heroes" believe that the Mormons will see through the ruse quickly and be able to help spread their weapons much more effectively. Why does this work? Because Heinlein, along with a lot of the people I know, consider Mormonism to be an elaborate sham to begin with. Sure we say we believe this stuff and live according to the commandments as we have them, but no sane person would really do that. So there must be something more that they are getting out of it.

Think about every newspaper article you have ever read about the Church and, in particular, about missionaries. The Church News service only supplies with about 4,000 of these weekly. What is the big deal? Everyone who knows about Mormons knows that we do this. But every article talks about the relative squalor of the missionary lifestyle (in the US, at least) and for some reason they also almost always mention the early mornings. The papers and reporters only write about this stuff because they continue to believe that we are not serious. Every one of these articles is in effect an attempt by the writer to say, "It turns out that they are serious about this religion after all. Who'da thunk it?" It is a fact that seems obvious to us, but it is one that the "Gentile" community is constantly discovering anew.

One last observation regarding the public's ability to assume that a religious adherent takes their own religion seriously. I will call it the law of laughing at oneself. While it is always appropriate to laugh at oneself, there are rules about telling jokes. Black people can tell jokes on themselves, but it is unseemly if a member of another race was to tell the same or similar joke. This also applies to religions. Members of a religion are allowed to tell jokes about themselves, but when members of other religions tell the same jokes it is less funny (surely the experience of the Jews speaks to this).

I have noticed that people have no problem making jokes about Mormons in my presence. This isn't terribly surprising for I am usually easy-going and I love jokes. That said, I would never instigate telling Jewish jokes to a Jew. Yet I am not treated in like manner. Why the double standard? I suggest that it is thought that I understand that my religion is wacky and therefore I should be big-hearted about other peoples attempts to portray it as such. But I do take my religion seriously, which is why I occasionally find their light-heartedness about it a little hard to take.

In any case, back to formulating my rule of laughing at oneself, it would go as follows: As long as it is not considered bad form to tell someone a joke regarding some aspect of the group to which the person to whom you are telling the joke belongs, this means that you don't believe it is offensive to the person to whom you are telling the joke. In other words, you don't believe that they might be seriously offended by your statement (all this assumes that the teller is acting in good faith, not seeking to cause offense). This indicates that the teller does not believe that the tellee cares very much about the way his religion is perceived and, therefore, doesn't care very much about it. When the only person, in a mixed group, that can start telling jokes about a given group is a member of that joked-about group, then that (joked-about) group has begun to gain some public legitimacy. Hence the law of laughing at oneself (suggestions for more appropriate titles will be entertained).

Sorry I took all this space, but it seemed like way too much to put into a comment.

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Anonymous Anonymous said ... (February 08, 2005 8:03 AM) 

Don't worry John, it doesn't take much to outrage JF :)

For the benefit of everyone else, let me translate Crawfordese into English:
John is a very smart guy. He's a PhD candidate at a very good university. He's a careful and well-trained scholar.

So why, his collegues and professors ask, could he possibly suspend all reason and believe the nonsense that is Mormonism? The answer: he can't really believe it and must only be Mormon out of some kind of cultural obligation. Therefore, considering the fact that John surely is cogniscent of the weakness of his own religion, it is acceptable to make fun of Mormons and Mormonism in front of him.


Posted by Ronan


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (February 08, 2005 12:57 PM) 

I appreciate your interpretation, Ronan. It clarifies my point. Although, I ask that next time you pop up in an oval in the corner so that the deaf may also understand.

That said, I do not believe that this is simply a phenomenon found amongst the academics. People might Mormons and there is a disconnect between the person they just met, who seems stable and sane, and their ideas of what a Mormon must be like based on what little they understand of Mormon beliefs. Once again, why would Mormons worldwide continue to be newsworthy for helping in hurricanes or keeping food storage? Because normal people don't act this way. There must be something behind it.

I suppose that Scientology is a bad comparison, because most people believe that they are out and out crooked. Maybe the focus on convert baptisms leads them to believe we are a sort of spiritual MLM? Again with the crooked. Perhaps, they just initially think we really are insane, but it is a benign insanity, like the grandmother who smokes pot in the movies (I suppose this may just be me). In any case, once that moment has passed and they realize that we are people worthy of notice, alternate explanations begin to appear. I am suggesting that the idea that we can't really be serious about this whole Joseph Smith and Book of Mormon thing is one of them. 

Posted by John C.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (February 08, 2005 3:28 PM) 

I must have a unique situation, but for the most part, those around me are quite respectful of my religion (at least around me) and don't ever make any kinds of Mormon jokes unless I initiate them. Since I live in New York I've always said that we are the LEAST of the crazies out there. It's also probably due to the fact that I'm so smart that nobody would question my wisdom, they just accept it... 

Posted by Rusty


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (February 08, 2005 8:06 PM) 

And perhaps I am making a mountain out of a molehill. I have a bit of a persecution complex (as I have discussed in the past) regarding the church. Nonetheless, am I really the only person here who ever been in a conversation made awkward by someone's attitude toward Mormonism? Has nobody else dealt with the social niceties of explaining that I'm okay with what that person said because I am firm enough in my belief that I can ignore ignoramuses? Maybe it really is a small world...

Also, the law of laughing at oneself does not generally apply to circles of close friendship were anything can be fodder for jokes and the lack of intended offense is usually understood. Rusty's experience, if representative of all the NYers that he meets, may mean that the LDS have gained some respect in NYC (I'm sure the temple and New York Doll have helped on this front ;). 

Posted by John C.


Blogger Geoff J said ... (March 10, 2006 11:53 AM) 

Good stuff John. Too bad this site is no longer with us...


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