When I was serving my mission in Russia, almost no-one I met had heard of the Mormons, but those who had had learned of us from a particular source. Leo Tolstoy? President Benson? or Premier Kruschev? No. Our mediator, it turned out, was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
A Study in Scarlet is the first Sherlock Holmes novel and most of the Russians I met were avid Holmes fans. Upon hearing our Mormon connection, they almost always cheered up. We were twice exotic, once for simply being Americans living amongst Russian, twice for belonging to a secretive, woman-kidnapping, polygamous cult. They were rarely interested in learning about the gospel, of course, but the Russian mindset is attracted to the grotesque and they hoped talking to us would provide an ample supply. Sadly, we more often than not disappointed them.
This was all brought to mind a couple of weeks ago when I learned of the decision to remove A Study in Scarlet from the sixth-grade curriculum in a Virginia school district. In the curriculum, it served to introduce the students to both the mystery genre in general and the Holmes character in particular. The parent who objected to its inclusion argued it would also be “our young students’ first inaccurate introduction to an American religion.” Instead, she suggested that students read “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” another Holmes novel, for their first exposure to mystery.
First of all, I think that if you are going to object to a book in a school’s curriculum, this is the way to do it. Be clear about what you find objectionable. Find and present an alternative that doesn’t feature the offensive elements, but that does fulfill the same function. I think the parent took the best possible approach and the school district chose to remove it from the curriculum for the sixth grade, making it optional for teachers at a higher grade. All that said, I don’t think she should have objected at all. There is no better way to get a child to read a book than to forbid the reading of that book. We are a sufficiently diffuse information society that all attempts to censor are futile. Just teach your kids right and hope they paid attention.
Now, having done my librarian duty, I admit that I am a bit bumfuzzled by this event. Have we become the sort of people that the majority feels a need to protect? Just a couple of months ago, I was thinking that Mormons continued to be considered about on the moral level of Scientologists for most folks, but I don’t think you will ever hear people arguing that books that bad mouth L. Ron Hubbard’s followers should be disregarded (quite the opposite). Then there was the recent episode of Talk of the Nation that featured Michael Purdy and Joanna Brooks discussing the church and whether it is misunderstood. NPR, lefties that they are, gave Bro. Purdy and Sis. Brooks the opportunity to explain us to the NPR audience.
The most interesting exchange, to me, starts at the 25:28 mark when the host reads an email from a member of the church. The member basically says that we are normal, we are just like any other religious group. Note the slight pause and then the awkward laughter from Joanna. Her first statement is “We pass really well,” quickly followed by a brief history of our early rejection of America and subsequent re-assimilation. Her shock and rush to provide context is fascinating.
If, as the Virginia incident might indicate, we are becoming normal, do we want to be? I remember being in high school in a majority non-Mormon town. Being a Mormon was sufficient to grant me individuality. When my chemistry teacher was asking about something unique from each student on the first day, I said, “I’m a Mormon.” He said, “That’s unique?” I responded, “Not among Mormons.” But that’s the issue. We are not really among Mormons, even when we are. We are aware of a vast sea of not Mormons out there around us. So, even in groups, our group identity gives us self-knowledge. I didn’t have to be a budding journalist or a drama geek; being a Mormon was enough.
The New Normal would mean that we’d lose that. We’d still be Mormon, but it wouldn’t mean anything more in America than being Catholic or Methodist does. You can share jokes with insiders, but for outsiders it just means that you were given a too-religious upbringing. They’ll expect us to grow out of it.
Joanna’s awkwardness is a natural reaction to this loss. When threatened with our normality, Joanna quickly made us a little weird, even though she just spent about 15 minutes making us as non-threatening as possible to an NPR audience. If she is any indication, it seems we want our peculiar status. However, I’m not sure, in the era of big-budget Broadway satire and presidential candidates, that we’ll be able to maintain it.
In the meantime, I’m curious what you think the result of Mormonism becoming normalized in American Society might be, both for us and for the nation.