Let the Fundamentalist Speak?

There are always some people whose ideas are considered bad or dangerous by other people. For instance, in answering the following questions, consider a fundamentalist Mormon who advocates polygamy, the Adam-God doctrine, racial restrictions on priesthood, and other elements of the Mormon past as eternal truths.





Parallel survey questions addressing communists and atheists, which are due to Samuel Stouffer (Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties, 1955) have been asked of random samples of the American public on various occasions. After a fair number of BCC readers have had the chance to respond, I’ll compare our attitudes toward fundamentalist Mormons with those recorded regarding communists and atheists among the general public and discuss the meaning of the results.


As I write this conclusion to the post, we’ve had 164 people respond to the questions above. Of those people, about 95% have voted to allow fundamentalists to give speeches advocating polygamy, to teach in universities, and to have books in the public library. These numbers provide some evidence that BCC readers are far more likely to tolerate Mormon fundamentalists than the American public as a whole is to tolerate groups that it dislikes. Data from a 1954 survey (published in the Stouffer book mentioned above) show that 37% of Americans would allow an atheist to speak in public, 12% would allow her to teach, and 35% would allow a book written by her to remain in a public library. By 1977, these percentages had increased a lot (63%, 39%, and 60%, respectively), but some evidence suggests that the increase was due in large part to a decline in the depth of people’s dislike for atheists (see Sullivan, Piereson, and Marcus’s 1979 article in the American Political Science Review 73(3): 781-94). If we instead make sure to choose a group that the respondent dislikes, the percentage of people in the US as a whole who give tolerant answers on these questions as late as 1998 is only about 21% (see Mondak and Sanders’s 2003 article in the American Journal of Political Science 47(3): 492-502).

So, how do we interpret the very positive scores for BCC readers on this scale? Perhaps BCC readers don’t dislike Mormon fundamentalists — or perhaps our respondents are simply extraordinarily tolerant and committed to civil liberties in comparison with other Americans. Either of these conclusions needs to be modified by the realization that our respondents were not a random sample of anything. Nevertheless, there were enough of them, and the results were decisive enough, to believe that it probably means something.

So the next time someone says to you that Mormons aren’t liberal, you should feel ready to respond: “Well, if by liberal you mean civil-libertarian, and if by Mormons you mean BCC readers, then you’re completely wrong — and I’ve got the numbers to illustrate (not prove) my point!”


  1. Steve Evans says:

    The only one that appears close so far is the “allowing to teach” one. I fail to see what the big deal is, unless it is a fear that the teacher would not adhere to the given curriculum and use her teaching post as a podium for her beliefs. Is that the fear that the question is getting at?

  2. As long as there is no hate involved in what they say, I have no problem with any of it. It could turn into a learning experience for a lot of people who don’t know about the church. It could have people asking questions about what we really believe.

  3. Don’t assume that the results are fixed or stable! We’ve only had 14 people respond so far, and it’s possible that they’re atypical. There may well be legitimate reasons for some people to conclude that allowing advocates of polygamy into these various domains might be dangerous or harmful to society.

  4. everyone is entitled to their own wrong opinion

  5. The second poll hinges on whether the candidate could be criminally prosecuted and whether he/she was otherwise qualified.

  6. Since these are mostly speech issues, I would be less concerned about the specific topic of the fundamentalist book, lecture, or speech and more concerned about its intended effect on the audience. For instance, if the communication was intended to incite violence, encourage illegal behavior, or was pornographic, then I might be for limiting it in public settings. However, I could imagine a fundamentalist Mormon speech or book that does none of these things and should be allowed.

    The parallel communist survey is interesting because several of the early First Amendment cases dealt with recent immigrants to the US who advocated the anarchist-Trotskyist version of communism. If I remember correctly, courts generally came down on the side of finding that no matter how repulsive the content, the speech could only be restricted if it incited to violence or other illegal behavior (I may misremember).

  7. Let em speak. By what mechanism would you prevent them from speaking anyway?

  8. I actually think that question #2 would be more interestin–and a closer call–at the high school level, although I’d still have to answer “Allowed to teach” (provided the person had the proper qualifications, etc.). At the college level, though, I don’t care if the polygamist in question were to advocate polygamy. At the high school level, there may be some acceptable limit as to how much advocacy she or he may do (just like high school teachers currently aren’t supposed to proselyte their students).

  9. Teachers, with their Extraordinary Powers of Persuasion, are an especially dangerous force for evil when their deeply held personal beliefs clash with the deeply held personal beliefs of, ahh, just about everyone else in the classroom.

    It’s common knowledge that someone normally unable to attract attention from the opposite sex, garner praise from colleagues or win an argument on the internet transforms into a regular Pied Piper when given a position over students at whatever level.

  10. The term “advocate” applied to polygamy is vague. To me, it implied practice because people don’t seem to publicly advocate it unless it’s something they do. So I wouldn’t want to hear this person speak or teach because polygamy is illegal, and I’m not down with that.

  11. When I read the questions, I didn’t assume the speaker/teacher was a practising polygamist. Should I have?

    The answer to all of these seem obvious to me. Why would I want to restrict someone else’s right to free speech and religion? Next thing you know, they’re going to do it to me.

  12. There are people with all sorts of views, and many worse publications out there. All three of these things are things which may be chosen to read, attend etc. The fundamentalist professor would not be an issue depending on curriculum as Steve said earlier. Given these parameters none of these scenarios should be an issue. Change a few and that might change the results a bit.

  13. What? You people support allowing an individual to speak, teach, write, and think in the land of liberty. Next you’ll say that democrats should be allowed the same rights! Where will this all end…?

  14. This reminds me of a social experiment Andy Kaufman might have come up with–a Tony Clifton moment.
    I would almost certainly attend a talk with some racist title, and I would come fully decked out with my Martin Luther King pin and an “I Support Barak Obama” jacket. I would probably come holding hands with some of my African American friends, maybe singing “We Shall Overcome.”
    A friend of mine was the daughter of an ACLU leader. When White supremacists wanted to march down the Detroit streets, my friend strenuously objected. Her father did not, and explained his position thus: “But of course we will let them march. We must let them. Their march will remind us how much we despise what they stand for.”

  15. Ardis Parshall says:

    Funny how bloggers so often complaint about the poor quality of teaching in the Church, yet when the topic turns to a subject a commenter disagrees with, teachers have Extraordinary Powers of Persuasion. With initial caps, yet. Ha!

  16. This is a quick comment to point out that I’ve updated the original post to discuss the rather striking results for BCC readers on these survey questions.

  17. Take away simple freedoms and what do we have left? Just what we are ending up with as we speak.


  18. http://mormonstories.org/?p=199




    Speaking of letting a Fundamentalist speak…
    I found these very interesting, informative enjoyable to listen to.

  19. Antonio Teixeira says:

    So the next time someone says to you that Mormons aren’t liberal, you should feel ready to respond: “Well, if by liberal you mean civil-libertarian, and if by Mormons you mean BCC readers, then you’re completely wrong — and I’ve got the numbers to illustrate (not prove) my point!”

    I really liked these numbers.

    Unfortunately, the opinions here don’t express the official LDS attitude towards Mormon Fundamentalists or polygamists (two different concepts). See for example the study on LDS Church Surveillance of Fundamentalist Mormons (The Fred E Curtis Papers, by Marianne Watson and D Michael Quinn – 2001 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium) and the events leading to Tom Green’s trial.

    How would questions #1 and 2 be answered if it refered to Church-owned buildings or universities?

    I must say that in many cases the LDS bloggernacle doesn’t have this libertarian view either, with Fundamentalism being a label to place on ideas based on early LDS doctrines or practices.

  20. Ardis Parshall says:

    You can count my votes for allowing speaking/teaching/library presence to the fact that the questions had virtually no limitation. I *would* care if someone actively and persistently promoted the fundamentalist position in a taxpayer-supported institution to the neglect of the subject he was hired to teach, and I wouldn’t allow a fundamentalist to speak at stake conference. But the way the questions are worded, to vote “no” has us denying the most basic civil rights.

  21. Ardis, nonetheless, this is the wording of the questions that evoke widespread support for denying basic civil rights to disliked groups in the American population. Most people — like you — have limits to tolerance, and that’s probably reasonable. What’s noteworthy here is the large discrepancy between the limits you and other BCC readers have expressed in response to these questions, and the limits that representative samples of Americans have expressed in response to an identical battery of questions.

  22. RT,

    Don’t you think the fact that most of us here are tolerant Mormons pretty much explains the discrepancy? Polygamy is in our religious and cultural history, and the blogging subset or Mormons tend to be among the most tolerant.

  23. I see these numbers as a realistic reflection of our cultural heritage, where expulsion, massacre, and discrimination are common themes in our history. That’s why I am constantly astounded by the general political tone in Utah (I’m an ex-pat living in the Puget Sound).

    Support for curtailment of civil rights in the name of terrorism mostly identified with a specific religious group could easily be substituted for so much of our 19th century history. Civil rights abuses were rampant in the 1950’s and 1960’s under the umbrella of resisting Communism (see Ellen Schrecker’s 1995 volume, “Many are the Crimes”, about judicial and economic discrimination against anyone not espousing virulent anti-communist rhetoric). There seems to be a latent fear of “others” out there, and in spite of all our efforts to appear as a mainstream religion, the public still views us as polygamists, cultists, non-christian fringe dwellers, and that Mitt Romney will bring all of that down on America if he becomes President.

    Thank goodness that some of us have learned some of those lessons of tolerance. If this seems to be a political turn on this thread, I really don’t think it is. Take this same set of questions, substitute “mormon” for “fundamentalist Mormon”, and ask those questions in North Carolina or Ohio, and we might be shocked at the results.

  24. “Perhaps BCC readers don’t dislike Mormon fundamentalists”

    Or more importantly they don’t fear them. I’ve never seen anti-FLDS propoganda, and the teaching I have had about this group of people in the media and at church is that they’re spooky and misguided, but hardly threatening to my ‘way of life,’ (whatever that might mean) as communisis were portrayed, and probably athiests to a lesser degree.
    In addition, any speaker, teacher etc. that might be perceieved as threatening to my religious sensibilities fails to get me very excited anyway because I already live in an environment and among institutions that challenge my spiritual values and ideas. I have either learned to ignore those challenges or negotiate with them.

    I wonder how people would feel about an advocate for political violence, or someone from NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association).

  25. KyleM, I agree that Mormon bloggers are very tolerant. I’d speculate that we’re more tolerant than Mormons as a whole, but I don’t have the data to demonstrate it.

    Kevinf, I agree that it makes a lot of sense to construct an argument for tolerance from Mormon history. And I also agree that many Americans would probably express serious intolerance toward Mormons — as I mentioned above, at the end of the post, many Americans are willing to express support for the curtailment of the civil rights of basically any group they seriously dislike.

    Norbert, I think the logic you express is probably reasonably typical of the Mormon bloggers who’ve answered this question. On the other hand, eliciting intolerant responses from samples of Americans doesn’t actually require naming a group those Americans fear; strong dislike is enough. As late as 1998, for example, lefty Americans were about 80% willing to suppress the civil rights of members of the John Birch Society — even though that society barely had members, and certainly lacked the power to be any kind of threat, by that point.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure about the extent to which there isn’t anti-polygamist Mormon rhetoric among Mormons, especially in Utah. I know that I heard a lot while I was in high school there — to the point that I acquired prejudices that I subsequently had to unlearn. While there’s at least the possibility that my experience was atypical, it seems likely to me that the Utah culture region tends to inculcate strong anti-polygamist sentiments.

  26. Antonio Teixeira says:

    #20 “I wouldn’t allow a fundamentalist to speak at stake conference”.

    Does Fundamentalist here mean polygamist? If so, would that include Joseph Smith and his friends?

  27. Antonio, it would also include Abraham. However, none of these folks were fundies. Fundies simply aren’t in accord with the Church. Support them all you want, but this won’t change.

  28. I wonder what the results would have been if the poll question had substituted homosexual for fundamentalist and homosexuality for polygamy.

  29. The issue here is one of phrasing, also.

    Here is the way it is phrased:

    If a fundamentalist Mormon wanted to give a speech in your city advocating polygamy, should he or she be allowed to speak, or not?

    Let’s change it about, how about:

    If a fundamentalist Mormon wanted to give a speech in your city advocating polygamy, would you listen?

    Or how about:

    If a fundamentalist Mormon wanted to give a speech in your house advocating polygamy, should he or she be allowed to speak, or not?


    If a fundamentalist Mormon wanted to give a speech in your city advocating polygamy, and came to you for permission and help, Would you Support them?

    Or even

    If it was your job to set up speakers for events in your city, and a fundamentalist Mormon wanted to give a speech in your city advocating polygamy, would you set them up?

  30. Again, Matt W., I should note that — while there are always questions that could be asked that would lead any given individual to vote to suppress the speech — the question as actually asked above, with appropriate choice of target group, leads a reasonable-to-large proportion of representative samples of Americans to oppose the right to give the speech.

  31. J. I don’t disagree, I am not questioning that a reasonable amount of Americans feel they have the right to suppress opposing views which they find incorrect or stupid. Just look at the whole ID fandango for a prime example of that.

    My point was more that while I answered yes to all three questions about, where I felt I had no control of the situation, I would probably answer no to all the questions I layed out.

  32. Antonio Teixeira says:

    #27 J. Stapley,

    were Joseph Smith and the early polygamists in accord with the Church when the doctrine was revealed (probably as early as 1831)? Were the Church-approved plural sealings after the Manifesto in accord with the Church? Would you like to clarify how polygamy today is different from these two situations?

    There are different kinds of Fundamentalists out there but most do support the LDS as Christ’s Church while they claim priesthood authority to keep plural marriage alive.

  33. Antonio, you just betrayed your profound misunderstanding of Mormon history. Regardless of what they claim they are not in accord with the Church and its authorities. This is not a forum for your fundie apologetics.

  34. Antonio Teixeira says:

    What makes a Fundie? What can be considered a Fundamentalist view? Taking some “elements of the Mormon past as eternal truths”?

    According to such definition, believing that Christ was married and fathered children would be a Fundamentalist doctrine, since the current LDS position is that the Church has not received revelation on this, regardless of all statements by early leaders.

    Or this specific topic doesn’t fit into the category “Fundie” because many (if not most) members believe in that?

    Is it then a matter of popularity? Plural marriage has never been a popular doctrine, and the same can be said about Adam God doctrine, the United Order, old-style garments, etc..

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