What is an anti-Mormon? Latter-day Saints tend to have quite strong, and quite negative, feelings about anti-Mormons. My guess is that they might be our least-liked group — the one that Mormons would feel most reservations about allowing to speak at a library or teach at a high school (standard indicators used to measure social tolerance in survey research). But defining the boundaries of this highly-disliked group is a bit difficult to do. Some of us define anti-Mormonism in such broad terms that virtually all non-Mormons, and some faithful Mormons, fit in the category. Others choose a more narrow definition.
Terminological debates like these are typically painful and difficult to resolve. If a major moral taint didn’t attach to the word, it probably wouldn’t be worth thinking about what it actually means. But moral stigma does attach, with anti-Mormons thought of by some Latter-day Saints in the same ways that anti-Semites are thought of by World War II-era Jewish folks. So it may be worth tracing through definitions and thinking about who would be included.
The term “anti-Mormon” is composed of the prefix “anti-,” meaning “against,” affixed to the word “Mormon,” meaning a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or LDS Church). The term is typically used by Mormons to refer to literature, activities, or people perceived to be in direct opposition to the Saints or their church. Some Mormons differentiate between honest criticism and anti-Mormon propaganda, reserving the designation “anti-Mormon” for claims that are sensational or misleading.
This is an incredibly broad definition, yet it is perhaps the clearest and most specific I’ve encountered to date. Let us consider six categories of people who would fit within this definition of anti-Mormonism.
- Anti-Mormons of Private Conviction. Individuals who quietly believe, in their own hearts and minds, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not God’s only true and living church have committed themselves to opposition to one central tenet of Mormonism. As such, these individuals stand against the Mormon movement and therefore meet the basic definition of “anti-Mormonism.” On the other hand, anti-Mormons of private conviction are not guilty of any act that hurts the church’s missionary efforts, retention rates, or public reputation in any way. It seems likely that almost all non-Mormons who know anything about Mormonism are anti-Mormons of private conviction. Some members of the church may be, as well.
- Anti-Mormons of Theological Conscience. Individuals who have a deep commitment to another theological system, and who seek to rebut Mormon theological claims from the perspective of that system. These people are not opponents of the Mormon church as an organization or of the Mormons as a people; rather, they object to what they see as distortions or errors in Mormon theology. Because they publicly stand against specific Mormon religious ideas, these individuals also clearly meet the definition of “anti-Mormonism.” Yet anti-Mormons of theological conscience have exact parallels among Mormon leadership and rank-and-file. Every time a Mormon talk or lesson argues against trinitarian conceptions of God, or example, or the idea of a closed scriptural canon, that talk or lesson is engaged in a behavior that is exactly as offensive as anti-Mormonism of theological conscience. Most committed believers in other religions can be brought to play the role of anti-Mormon of theological conscience through interaction with Mormons.
- Anti-Mormons of Historical Conscience. Individuals who have developed and discussed in public a firm intellectual conviction, on the basis of historical evidence, that Mormon truth claims are not correct. Such individuals sometimes come to believe that the leaders of the Mormon church must know the same evidence that they know, and therefore suppose that our leaders are lying when they bear testimony regarding the church’s divine mission. In opposing the church’s official representation of itself and its history, anti-Mormons of historical conscience clearly meet the definition discussed above. Once again, exact parallels exist within Mormonism, including James E. Talmage’s book The Great Apostasy, the introductory anecdote of Le Grand Richards’ A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (which rules Protestantism out as a group of religions because of concerns about the Reformation), and so forth. It is perhaps worth noting that certain faithful Mormon historians may be seen by some as having crossed into this category by publishing works that contradict official interpretations of Mormon history. Examples might include Juanita Brooks for her work on the Mountain Meadows Massacre; Richard Bushman, Richard S. Van Wagoner, and Steven Walker for their early acknowledgment of Joseph Smith’s treasure-digging and treasure-seer activities, and so forth.
- Public Policy Anti-Mormons. Individuals who argue against Mormon political power, rather than Mormon religious influence. Such people were, in the 19th century, motivated by the clear evidence that Mormons violated mainstream American values regarding the family through the practice of polygamy and that Mormons lived under a theocratic political system. In the 20th and 21st centuries, such concerns in the US often focus instead on the fact that Mormons believe in a church leader who claims to receive binding revelation for members — and the possibility that the head of the Mormon church might control the political actions of Mormons serving in political office. Such attitudes reflect a specific form of rejection of Mormonism as a culture and of Mormons as individuals; hence, it meets the definition of anti-Mormonism. Public policy anti-Mormons are common in American society; surveys suggest that more than 40 percent of Americans would hesitate to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. However, parallel sentiments are common among Mormons, as well; how many Mormons would be willing to vote for an openly atheistic or Muslim presidential candidate?
- Circus Sideshow Anti-Mormons. These are anti-Mormons whose public rhetoric and behavior is driven by such strong motives that debate is not limited to genuine points of divergence with respect to theology, history, or public policy. Circus sideshow anti-Mormons will adopt any criticism, or employ any tactic, to score points against the Mormon antagonist. Because of the shifting nature of the intellectual attack, it is often difficult or impossible to identify the motives or underlying convictions behind the individual’s engagement with Mormonism. Rumor, gossip, and fantasy are all useful tools for public debate. Circus sideshow anti-Mormons do not merely commit mistakes in their debates (after all, everyone does that). Instead, they adopt tactics of the most blatant invention, speaking without cogent sources or recognizable evidence. In their headlong rush to damage the LDS church, such people clearly meet the definition of anti-Mormonism. However, a warning is needed: church members may sometimes mistake individuals who actually belong to one of the other categories of anti-Mormonism for circus sideshow anti-Mormons if they aren’t fully informed about the more challenging aspects of Mormon historical evidence.
- Anti-Mormons of Physical Persecution. Individuals and groups who go beyond rhetoric (public or private) to acts that physically damage the livelihoods or persons of Mormons. These people fully embody the definition of anti-Mormonism; their opposition to the Mormon church extends to the point of harming specific Mormons. The classic examples of anti-Mormons of physical persecution are the mobs of 19th-century Missouri and Illinois. Arguably, US federal policy during the polygamy period may also have fit within this category. During the 20th and 21st centuries, such anti-Mormons are quite uncommon in the US. Instead, this kind of anti-Mormonism has largely been represented by third-world guerrilla groups such as Peru’s Shining Path, who attack Mormons as symbols of US imperialism. There seem to be relatively few analogues to this form of anti-Mormonism within the Mormon community. The clearest and most famous exceptions would by the Mountain Meadows Massacre killers, although the Danites in Missouri may also fit in this category.
These six categories share little or nothing other than the central trait of the definition of an anti-Mormon quoted above: they all oppose Mormonism or Mormons in some way. Because of its inclusiveness, the term ‘anti-Mormon’ does a great deal of political work. It blurs the distinctions between anti-Mormons of private conviction, theological or historical conscience, or public-policy motivations; circus sideshow anti-Mormons; and anti-Mormons of physical persecution. The term allows Mormons to imagine moral continuity between the mobs of the 19th century, the ill-considered rants of Ed Decker and his fellow-travelers, the far more modest and carefully reasoned works of Dan Vogel, Brent Metcalfe, et al., and the personal religious reservations of friends, neighbors and coworkers. Branding these all as ‘anti-Mormons’ allows us to feel that we join in the persecution suffered by the early Saints, even though we don’t lose our wealth, our homes, our families, or our lives. Further, the terminological sleight of hand involved in the label ‘anti-Mormon’ allows us to ignore the differences between honest and honorable men and women who oppose us, on the one hand, and unprincipled villains, on the other.
If we would be as honest in our representations of our non-Mormon brothers and sisters as we would like them to be in their discussions of us, it is time to retire the blanket category of ‘anti-Mormonism.’ My six-fold typology of anti-Mormonisms is probably not complete, but it may provide the starting point for a less distorting language for discussing the varieties of people who stand outside of, and in at least one way against, the Mormon community.