This Tuesday, Rev. Franklin Graham, the influential son of the famed evangelist Billy Graham, told MSNBC’s Morning Joe that Mitt Romney is not a Christian. Even though Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, considers himself a practicing Christian, Graham said he outwardly respects Romney’s faith but considers it too unfamiliar to be grouped with his own.
Insistence on such distinctions characterizes discussions of Mormonism. The faith is more often treated as an object of ridicule rather than the transformational spiritual guide that it often is. When anyone mentions Mormonism, more often than mentioning its focus on family or missionary service, people decide to tell me that Mormons believe that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, or how Mormons believe that Jesus came to the new world to teach the Native Americans.
How idiotic could they be? Everybody knows that the Garden of Eden was in Iraq and that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples in Galilee, not Mexico.
When looked at from the outside, every religious tradition looks moronic. Just as easily as a Catholic can mock Mormonism’s prohibition against coffee, I can ask questions about Catholicism too. Why doesn’t God have a wife? Why would you follow a savior who was weak enough to be killed? And why would you drink his blood and eat his body?
I know each of these questions has a perfectly respectable answer that does not necessarily oblige anyone to believe the tenets on which they rest, but it does certainly compel the questioner to at least respect the tradition that imbues those tenets with meaning. Human culture encompasses many rich religious traditions, not all of which are easily understood growing up in a different belief system.
The problem, however, is that many Americans—or at least Georgetown students—already appreciate diversity of belief. Religious tolerance is widespread in the United States. Americans were appalled when France banned the niqab, a form of the burqa that involves covering of the entire face. Such a ban on voluntary religious expression was widely viewed to be a violation of natural rights, an abuse on the minority by the majority. Just 28 percent of Americans would approve of a ban, making it less popular than the IRS (40 percent) and only three times as popular as Congress (9 percent).
In the United States, few religious traditions are disrespected with the same flippancy as Mormonism is, even though Mormonism is hardly an outlier in terms of belief. Mormon temple garments, ridiculed as magic long underwear, are intended to be constant reminders to act modestly and in a respectable manner. They can be removed, and do not restrict Mormons from doing anything that a Protestant, for example, could do. The garments are remarkably similar to a Sikh’s turban, which is a symbol of respect, spirituality, courage, and piety. Sikhs wear their turbans proudly as a symbol of their heritage, without any derision from people who don’t share their religious norms. People don’t hush their voices when they insult Mormons, but the same person would be shunned if he or she ever made a joke about the religious headgear. No one would chastise a Jew for eating kosher, but somehow Mormonism’s proscription against tea is funny.
Mormons believe that Jesus came to America. Many Hindus believe that the world was created in an egg, yet Hindus are spared the derision because they are protected by the doctrine of multiculturalism, which does not extend to Mormons. The stereotypical Mormon is a white American from the mountain West, even though 52 percent of Mormons live outside the United States, and a majority are not white. Yet the persistent, popular view of Mormons remains.
Polls vary, but a mere 15 percent of Americans say that they would be less willing to support a Jewish president, whereas the number for Mormons is 36 percent, and the values for gays and Muslims are even higher (46 percent and 59 percent). Neither a gay person nor a Mormon would necessarily make a worse president. Perceptions of what is offensive change over time, and many once-proud racists are now largely quiet. Eventually, Americans will realize that disrespect is inexcusable regardless of how small the minority is. Perhaps, when our generation grows old, we’ll embarrass our grandchildren by joking about Romney’s underwear.