At the recent FAIR conference in Utah, some interesting data were shared. Guess what? People don’t like us. No, let me rephrase that: people really don’t like us. According to the polling firm which gathered the data, LDS people have an unfavorable to favorable rating of 5 – 1. For every person who thinks well of us there are five who do not. To compare, notice that Jewish people have a favorable rating of 7 – 2 (seven likes for every two dislikes) and Catholics have a favorable rating of 2 – 1. Where are we going and how did we get in this handbasket?
There are likely to be many complex reasons for these discouraging results. The easy thing to do would be to blame others and fault them for failing to see our own special wonderfulness, and I actually do think that we are a bit under-appreciated. I like Mormons, and I wish others did, too. But since it is difficult to change others, the best thing to do is to look to ourselves to see if there is anything we can do to produce positive change. For the purpose of this blog post, I want to suggest only one thing.
There was a very interesting exchange recently at insiderhighered.com which discussed the question of whether Christian people are mistreated in colleges and universities. One professor argues that the answer is yes, a lot, while the other one thinks maybe, but not much, and maybe Christians themselves bear part of the responsibility for it.
In the case of conservative evangelical Christianity, however, we are dealing with a group whose…members define themselves over against the secular world and particularly secular academe……This stance is informed by what can only be called a thorough-going persecution complex……the secular world is not merely a realm that exists alongside Christianity. Instead, it is in active opposition to Christianity, seeking its destruction. The theory of evolution, for example, is not simply a scientific theory that happens to reach conclusions at odds with a literal reading of Genesis — it is a conspiracy aimed at discrediting belief in God……On every front, the conservative evangelical community perceives itself to be under siege.
I think that many LDS people are at least temperamentally inclined to agree with much of that. I know I am. I expect that we are always going to be a relatively small religion and that often our fundamental, non-negotiable positions will be at odds with our surrounding culture. But there is something ultimately unsatisfying about the way we sometimes keep a careful list of the grievances, slights, and insults all those wicked, worldly people have visited upon us. Even as we can define ourselves as being in opposition to worldly influences, we also need to remember another fundamental imperative in Mormonism. We are commanded to be anxiously engaged, and to be the salt of the earth, and salt doesn’t do any good unless it is shaken around and mixed in. The LDS brand of Mormonism has an ingenious ability to simultaneously retrench and also reach out.
Brigham Young once expressed forceful dissatisfaction with elders who were called on missions but who returned a week or so later, saying that the people in that particular place were especially wicked, that there was no point in preaching, and that they had done the only thing possible, which was dusting off their feet. President Young claimed that there was no place where the people were so wicked that they would not respond to friendship, and said that if he were called to that same place, he wouldn’t even try to preach for several months. He would befriend people and offer to serve them by chopping wood, making fences, and doing other necessary chores. In this case, he echos the story of Ammon and Lamoni from the Book of Mormon. The Lamanite king was no doubt a wicked man who didn’t believe in God and who engaged in various forms of appalling behavior, like drunkenness and concubinage, yet Ammon overlooked those obvious problems. Imagine the result if he had tried the Zoramite door approach.
It should not surprise us that people dislike being used as a foil for our righteousness. There is more than a touch of the Zoramite to the tendency to define ourselves favorably in comparison to others. I believe that there is a limit to the extent we can withdraw from The World or see ourselves as standing in opposition to it and still do effective outreach, and I think we might be reaching that limit.
Note 1: Commenters are free to invoke the Rodney Stark argument, but they must also explain why it works in some places and not in others. Why is our church experiencing negative growth in Europe, for example?
Note 2: I’d like to provide documentation for the Brigham Young story but don’t have time right now to look it up. If you know the citation, please say so in a comment and I’ll be happy to footnote.