The “Anti-Mormon” Card

“The Cast Iron-Rodders know all the answers to the unanswerable. They require that every single facet of their faith be absolutely “true;” otherwise nothing is.”–Samuel W. Taylor, Aunty-Mormon I Ain’t, Nor Ante-Mormon Neither

I have been reading my way through dozens of anti-Mormon novels published in the second half of the nineteenth century. This is something that I could not have done even ten years ago without flying all over the country and hanging out in special-collections rooms where you have to wear latex gloves and a hazmat suit to touch a book. But then Google decided to digitize that portion of the world no longer protected by copyright, and now it is as easy as watching TV.

Before I even started reading, however, I knew exactly what I would find: a half-century-long cesspool virulent anti-Mormonism in the vein of A Study in Scarlet and Riders of the Purple Sage. I knew this because of all of the smarter and better-funded scholars who have gone all over the country to read these books—people like Leonard Arrington and Terryl Givens—told me so, with extensive bibliographies and long lists documenting the cesspoolishness of pretty much everything written about Mormons up until Nephi Anderson published Added Upon.

So here’s the thing: it’s just not true. A lot of these books aren’t “anti-Mormon” at all–at least not according to any definition that I would consider rational. Some of them vigorously defend the Saints against their Missouri and Illinois persecutors. Others use Mormon characters as heroes or set interesting romantic or adventure stories against the backdrop of Mormon polygamy. And nearly all of the satirical works (Artemus Ward, Mark Twain, Max Adeler, etc.) are more affectionate than inflammatory.

Of course, none of these authors believed that Joseph Smith was really a prophet, or that the Book of Mormon is an actual record of ancient people. They are not PRO-Mormon books after all. But the promiscuous use of terms like “anti-Mormon” makes it difficult to talk about the literature that really was anti-Mormon—the vicious, mean-spirited stuff that was used to raise mobs in Nauvoo and armies a generation later. By lumping this stuff in with books that simply disagree with Mormon historical and theological claims, we end up minimizing real anti-Mormonism by inflating our outrage and praising with faint damnation what we no longer have the vocabulary to condemn properly.

This same sort of thing happens in other venues too, some of them much less specialized than the obscure post-bellum American fiction that I study professionally. For example, in the past few months I have witnessed conversations, in person and online, in which the term “anti-Mormon” was used to describe 1)  an op-Ed essay arguing that religious people must meet a high burden of proof when claiming the right to engage in discriminatory practices; 2) a musical that affectionately satirizes Mormon missionaries; and 3) an article on the Book of Mormon, written by a non-Mormon scholar, that fails to affirm its historicity and its prophetic provenance.

Each of these characterizations we find the tacit assumption that anything that does not adopt the LDS Church’s highly correlated agenda should be defined as “anti-Mormon” and dismissed—as other forms of prejudice are dismissed—as something beyond the pale of civilized discourse. When we call something “anti-Mormon,” we accuse a speaker or writer of bigotry, of targeting a group of people solely on the basis of their religious identity. Our culture rightly condemns those who engage in hate speech, but everybody eventually loses when we confuse irrational hatred with simple disagreement. This is why sensible people don’t compare a lot of stuff to Hitler.

Similarly, there are several really good reasons not to play the anti-Mormon card every time that somebody disagrees with the Church’s position about anything. In the first place, it is an intellectually lazy thing to do. It substitutes an adjective for an argument and avoids the responsibility of actually responding to things. Furthermore, it shrinks the possibility space of legitimate discussion by forcing everybody who interacts with Mormonism in any venue to occupy one of two absolute rhetorical categories called “pro-Mormon” and “anti-Mormon.” And then there is the fact that it makes us look like a paranoid wack jobs.

But the most important reason to avoid this particular false dichotomy is that there really is such a thing as anti-Mormonism in the world. There are people who believe that Mormonism is a destructive cult that must be opposed with physical and institutional force. There are forces that would attack the Church’s legal standing in some countries and attempt to deprive its adherents of their civil rights. There are schoolyard bullies who pick on Mormon kids for sport and then grow up to be lawyers and governors of Southern states. And there is still, in some corners of the earth, a reflexive hatred for all things Mormons that is not the same thing as a historical or theological disagreement.

Victim-status seeking through outlandish hyperbole is all kinds of fun until somebody gets hurt. But as long as there really is anti-Mormonism in the world, Latter-day Saints will do well to preserve the considerable rhetorical force of the term for things that it actually applies to. When we play the anti-Mormon card too often or too quickly, or deal it from the bottom of the deck, we debase the currency of our language and expend our outrage unwisely on things like neurotic singing missionaries and scholars whose views of the Book of Mormon do not quite match our own.

 

Comments

  1. Paul Brown says:

    “does NOT adopt” I think you meant to type

  2. Fixed it. Thanks!

  3. Wasn’t the “what would a cult member do?” test coined here at BCC? Too bad it hasn’t taken hold amongst all of our co-religionists.

  4. Amen.

    FWIW I have found that those most likely to cry “anti!” at mere disagreement are Jello Belters, of the sort who never had any nonmember friends growing up because the number at their school could be counted on one hand, who never had to consider perspectives other than their own until far into adulthood. Those of us who are converts or the children thereof, who come from “the mission field” and have no desire to gather to “Zion,” who do not proclaim their worries about who their children will date when those children are as yet unbaptized, have very little use for them.

    If you want to know why Presidents Uchtdorf and Eyring are so beloved, it is because they have lived this in a way that no native of the Wasatch Front or East Mesa or Idaho Falls will ever really understand. When those who do not share your views are your neighbors, your classmates, your friends, it is far harder to tar them as The Other.

  5. People can disagree with the LDS church and not be anti-Mormon, absolutely. But I call “anti-Mormon” when it feels more like a hateful attack than a civil discussion or a mild-mannered teasing. Subjective, I know.

  6. Good stuff. But I missed the reference to “neurotic singing missionaries.” Please ‘splain?

  7. I was thinking primarily of this song from the Book of Mormon Musical:

  8. christiankimball says:

    Excellent. Thanks.

  9. Nice work.

  10. Michael, as to your number three, the author of the article actually did argue for prophetic provenance and historicity of the BoM; just not in the way the author of the poor blog response would. So in addition to misusing the anti-Mormon label, the writer misrepresented the article in several other crucial ways.

  11. N. W. Clerk says:

    What specific works are you claiming Arrington and Givens mischaracterized?

  12. When you set yourself up as “the only true church” (i.e., all the rest are the spawn of satan), your reaction to any form of questioning or criticism will invariably be visceral and intolerant. This is especially the case when outsiders expose the falsity of various truth claims (e.g., all Native Americans are Lamanites, the priesthood ban was ordained of God to punish His less valiant children, etc.). You only have two choices: (i) attack the messenger and avoid engaging the substance of the criticism, or (ii) admit that the institution and its leaders got several things wrong. For many, option #2 is a form of cognitive dissonance they simply cannot endure.

    As others have noted, we are a young church, slowly coming to grips with our history, and realizing that perhaps we should be more guarded in our claims of exclusivity and superiority. I think we will eventually mature and outgrow this, but it will likely take at least another generation or two.

    (Michael: Can you provide us with a list of the late 19th Century works of fiction you mentioned? Thanks.)

  13. Amen. Especially to this: “In the first place, it is an intellectually lazy thing to do. It substitutes an adjective for an argument and avoids the responsibility of actually responding to things.”

  14. Excellent. Another small typo: “none of these authors beieved that Joseph Smith…” believed, as Justin Beiver would say.

  15. I notice that people treat “anti-Mormon” in a fashion quite different from say the terms racism or sexism. With the latter two we recognize that intents, especially clear surface layer conscious intents, don’t really matter. What counts are the effects and the power relations inherent in the acts. Why can’t anti-Mormonism be treated similarly?

  16. N. W. Clerk says:

    Black women too ugly to marry? That’s racist. Mormon women too ugly to marry? That’s “affectionate”.

  17. Whenever there are arguments or disagreements It’s quite common to try and shut down opposing arguments with one word rhetorical devices. Calling something Anti-Mormon is one of them. On the other side it’s common to use single words to shut down arguments as well. Such as calling someone a TBM or an “apologist” and so therefore not actually looking at what they are saying. This happens politically as well on both sides. Saying something is PC or whatever. It happens to be a way of not having to address the actual argument or discussion.

  18. You’d think we’d find something other than “anti-” for a prefix. It just makes it harder to understand when it’s used in “Anti-Christ” and “Anti-Nephi-Lehis”

  19. maustin66 says:

    FarSide, here is a link to the tentative bibliography of nineteenth century fiction about Mormons that I am working with. About 3/4 of these are available on Google Books with a simple search:

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/kjol6fip40cvy6p/19th%20Century%20Mormon%20Fiction.pdf?dl=0

  20. Thanks, Michael.

  21. John Mansfield says:

    The post’s last two paragraphs have there own kind of all-or-nothing laziness, that because there are some people, somewhere who will do extremely bad things if they can, then work to harm us a couple of orders of magnitude less malign, and more abundant, should be accepted.

  22. Forget the novels. Which blogs, posters and/or commenters in the bloggernacle would you consider to be “anti?” Haven’t we already met the enemy?

  23. Clark Goble says:

    JTB. I think that it often is a way to shut down discussion. However often the terms are raised to simply allow people with limited time to choose what to read. For instance I find life is too short to bother with Creationist or Intelligent Design arguments anymore. So if someone labels something as such I’m probably not going to waste time reading it. It’s not that I’m not willing to reply to debate or the arguments. Just that I’ve done it enough that it’s gotten tired.

    Now the problem is that of course some use this to shut down debate entirely. Exactly when this labeling is appropriate seems a bit tricky.

  24. Brad Neff says:

    The core of the matter is following the two great commandments to love God AND our neighbor, which includes everyone else. If there ever was one true church on the earth–originally established by the Master–then it is not immoral to believe the same could, should or does exist today, but it cannot be demonstrated by self-righteousness, as the author points out. Humility, patience, love unfeigned and abounding in good works are the signals to watch for.

    However, we must also remember that Christ came to minister to the sick, not the whole. Therefore, we should not be surprised to find His true church full of those suffering from the illness of imperfection while preaching the merits of striving for perfection, while also striving to not cross the line of self-righteousness. He never said it would be easy…

  25. Claiming persecution is to change the conversation. It avoids asking hard questions about the teachings. Are the teachings true? Are the teachings good?