I’m not a big supporter of Barack Obama. I didn’t vote for the man, and I don’t agree with many of his policies. I did, however, think it was…well…cool when he was elected President. Not because of what I thought it meant for America for the next 4 years, but because of what it meant for America for the past two hundred years. The election showed that our nation had changed in a fundamental way. We had outgrown an ugly prejudice and come to the point where a black person could become president. Immediate political positions aside, it was an important coming of age for America.
I see the likely nomination of Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate for President in much the same way. Regardless of what his political positions might be (and I disagree with him on plenty of issues too), it would demonstrate that perhaps, as a country, we are outgrowing another unseemly prejudice. Curiously enough, however, his nomination might be a mixed bag for the Church itself.
What Romney’s nomination would mean for the country as a whole might not be that obvious to people who aren’t familiar with the history of Mormonism in the United States or who don’t experience the day-to-day insults that people endure because they are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While such prejudice pales in comparison to the racial discrimination that has marred our country for so long, bigotry against Mormons has been common and, at times, severe.
For example, in 1838 Governor Lilburn Boggs of Missouri issued an infamous “extermination order,” by which he decreed that Mormons were to be removed from Missouri or eliminated. Mormons were driven from their homes in Missouri as a result of the persecution there and set up a new home in Nauvoo, Illinois. Following Joseph Smith’s murder at the hand of a mob in Carthage, Illinois, the Mormons were forced to leave Nauvoo as well, while their temple was burned to the ground.
Fortunately, the days of open violence against Mormons are over, but the hatred behind such acts is alive and well. One only need to peruse the reader comments for any article that mentions the LDS Church on CNN.com or any other major news source, and within just a few comments the acid starts flowing. I served my mission in Indiana and Illinois in the mid 1980’s, and I was shocked to be told once at a door: “We got you Mormons out of this state once, and we’ll do it again.”
Attacks on our religion are pretty run-of-the-mill experiences for most active Mormons. I remember after sitting through a professor’s long-winded attack on Mormons during a class at Stanford Law School and the trepidation I felt when I raised my hand and said, “I’m a Mormon, and you don’t know what you are talking about.” Another professor at the law school later confided to me bluntly: “Look, on this campus you can’t say anything negative about anybody. But Mormons are fair game.” He didn’t like it. He didn’t understand it. But he didn’t deny it.
Most members of the Church have experienced the same kind of thing to one degree or another. Unfortunately, in my view, we’ll typically grouse about it among ourselves, but rarely make a stink when it happens. I think that perpetuates the problem, but I understand the desire to avoid a fight.
My hope would be that having a Mormon on the November ballot for President would help move the LDS Church from the fringe to the mainstream. Granted, there is no real shortage of Mormons in prominent political office now. For years the LDS church paradoxically has been over-represented in the Senate and House of Representatives as compared to the percentage of Mormons in the general population. I think, however, that has more to do with the civic-minded nature of LDS people than it does with society welcoming Mormons with open arms.
The prominence of a Presidential election is something altogether different, and Romney’s religion will likely get nearly as much attention in 2012 as Obama’s race did in 2008. Perhaps more. If that attention prompts the media to get past the myths and misinformation about Mormons, it might help people understand that while the particular tenants of our faith might differ from yours, we are, for the most part, pretty normal, boring Americans who face the same daily struggle to get by. Maybe, at the very least, the extremely weird rumor about Mormons having horns will go away for good. (Seriously…horns. Ninety percent of our General Authorities are bald. Where would we hide them?)
On the other hand, regular Joes (or, in this case, Joe Smiths), are a boring story. The media typically go where the action is, and what critics of Mormonism lack in facts they more than make up for in sensationalism and volume. That’s why I see the Romney nomination as a mixed bag. For every positive story about the Church, there will be a hundred blogs, sermons, articles or letters mocking or attacking things that I hold sacred. Even though that might give me plenty to write about, I don’t look forward to it.
Still, even the bad publicity may have some value. I remember when I was a 19-year old missionary serving during my first week in Indiana, I was handed a vicious anti-Mormon book by a local minister who told me: “This doesn’t seem right to me. This doesn’t sound anything like the Mormons I know. Will you read it and tell me where it’s wrong?” With the approval of my mission president, I did, banging out forty or so single-spaced pages on a manual typewriter. We spent some time afterwards comparing what was said with what was true. That minister didn’t join the Church, but at the end of the process he knew who I really was and what I really believed. Because he really wanted to know.
If all of the noise I anticipate leads to questions from people who really want to know, I can live with that. And I will be happy to answer whatever questions I can.