This past month my students were assigned to do a group project on the role of monsters in our society. As part of this project, they needed to pick a central exhibit to study. Imagine my horror when they decided they wanted to write on Mormons as examples of contemporary monsters.
This experience obviously made me pause. They did not know that I was Mormon, so I decided that the best approach was to have a conversation about why they thought Mormons were an appropriate example. Perhaps not surprisingly, the issues that they raised were polygamy and discrimination against blacks and women.
When my smart, educated, and generous students perceive Mormons as monsters, then it indicates to me that as a church we are still failing to win the PR battle and to portray ourselves as people with something to contribute to society at large. Although I think there are many things we could do to improve our standing with others, such as speaking in terms that non-Mormons can understand, my students comments helped me realize that our church needs to do a much better job acknowledging our history with polygamy and discrimination.
For my students, who knew a surprising amount about our church history, they hear our church saying that it no longer practices polygamy and discrimination against blacks. But, my students still insist, and I think rightly so, that, while the church no longer engages in these practices, it certainly historically allowed them and has not adequately explained them. In other words, they view these practices as still very much central to the inherent doctrine and origins of the church, even if they are no longer in practice.
Recently, our church did an excellent job examining Mountain Meadows in a fair light. I think that if we want to improve our relationships with the larger community, then it is also time that we examine other aspects of our history, especially polygamy and discrimination, in an equally fair light, attempting to understand their place in our culture rather than dismissing them as no longer extant. As far as I know, there is no official revelation repudiating the inherent principle of polygamy, which is not necessarily a problem, except, and here is the problem, when we like to say that it is outside of our culture. My students, at least, don’t seem to buy it. And, I’m a bit inclined to label our current approach to the issue as denial. Certainly, it is easier to tell our friends that those who practice polygamy have nothing to do with us. But, I think we would be able to talk much more effectively with those outside of our faith if we embraced, and learned, our history in its entire complexity.