Summer of the Saints

Is this really ‘The Mormon moment’? This Las Vegan says church members still face plenty of bias.

From presidential politics to Broadway, best-selling books and college sports, it’s difficult to turn on the TV or Internet lately without finding references to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A Newsweek cover even proclaimed this “The Mormon Moment.” Bully for us, I suppose. But pardon me if I don’t believe the hype. From this Mormon’s perspective, the recent buzz about all things Mormon is inconsequential.

As America wrestles with the idea of awarding its top office to someone who prays in secretive temples and believes Christ visited the Americas, it’s worth noting that here in Las Vegas we’ve never had problems with putting Mormons in power. After all, they helped settle the Valley, and from government and education to business—yes, even gaming—they’ve been instrumental in shaping the region. The man who funded the birth of the Strip (E. Parry Thomas) and the man who supplied its neon luster (Thomas Young) were both Mormons.

But across the nation, plenty of anti-Mormon bias remains. Even as Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman vie for the Republican presidential nomination, a recent Gallup poll revealed 22 percent of Democrats and Republicans surveyed would not support a Mormon presidential candidate. Only gays, lesbians and atheists were distrusted more. And the approval numbers on Mormons haven’t improved since Gallup first measured such biases back in 1967.

That’s not racism, anti-Semitism or sexism. But just because the lexicon lacks the appropriate “-ism” doesn’t mean we can’t call it what it is—a prejudice. But why has anti-Mormon sentiment remained while other once-common biases dissipated?

Some resentment clearly stems from the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage. But that’s only recently become a political hot button, so it can’t account for decades-old opposition.

Meanwhile, there’s the perception that Mormons are all white Utahns. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve got a lot of white Utahns. Years ago business took me to Salt Lake City, and moments after I landed I literally walked into Donny Osmond—a walking stereotype, crashing into my carry-on. I looked around to see if Marie was nearby, enjoying a lovely Nutrisystem meal.

But you’ll probably be surprised by the (equally truthful) tale of a December morning when I heard a soulful rendition of “O Holy Night” echoing through my Henderson chapel. The singer, a woman church members call Sister McDowell, showcased an amazing voice. I’m told she still sings frequently, usually at the Tropicana, where she’s known as Gladys Knight.

More than 14 million Mormons fill nearly 29,000 congregations worldwide. And since 1996, more Mormons reside outside the United States than within. That diversification stems largely from the efforts of those ubiquitous white-shirted Mormon missionaries. In my congregation, families have sons and daughters proselytizing in Kenya, the Marshall Islands and Korea. Years ago I did the same, in urban Virginia neighborhoods whose denizens were almost exclusively black yet still included many faithful Mormons. If this church still appears short on diversity, it’s not from lack of effort.

Some anti-Mormonism echoes the fears expressed during the 1960 presidential campaign, when many questioned whether a Catholic president would place the White House under Vatican rule. History shows enough voters overcame that concern, and even grew to revere John F. Kennedy.

The laughable stereotype that all Mormons think and vote alike also lingers. No reasonable person would suggest President Obama’s policies reflect the wants and needs of blacks alone, nor could one claim Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., is influenced solely by her Jewish faith. Real life is more nuanced. Mormons do not have a hive mind directed remotely from Salt Lake City. The political differences dividing Democratic Sen. Harry Reid from Romney, Huntsman and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch should have dispelled such notions long ago.

Mormons’ perceived unwillingness to adapt to shifting cultural mores is a turnoff to some, but like other faiths, on some beliefs the church just won’t compromise. Why should it? Any religion boils down to a question of do you believe or not: Evidence may be offered either way, but ultimately such debate is academic. If you disagree with aspects of any faith, that’s your right and I respect it. Like smokers and nonsmokers vying to share a room, sometimes there’s no place for middle ground. But neither side should revile another simply because opinions sometimes differ.

Perhaps that’s why church leadership is proactively emphasizing Mormons’ commonality with others. An “I’m a Mormon” media blitz recently launched in New York, with Times Square billboards encouraging people to visit to learn about church beliefs. As Elder Richard G. Hinckley, head of the church’s missionary department, told Newsweek, “When people are better informed, misconceptions about us tend to diminish.”

I have not seen The Book of Mormon on Broadway, but I’m familiar with the classic works of two of its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. My first recollection of a Mormon-themed jab from that duo came during a 1998 South Park scene in which a recently baptized man proclaimed, “From this day on, all will be well.” Seconds later, he was swept away by one of those ever-expanding snake fireworks.

It was absurd, but it made me laugh. Over time, Parker and Stone have poked fun at almost everyone, including Catholics, Jews and Muslims—even Scientologists. They’re equal-opportunity offenders, and as such, their jokes shouldn’t been taken personally. But they can open a dialogue.

Mormons are distinctive, a self-proclaimed “peculiar people.” But every group has distinct beliefs, cultures and styles. The more we understand those differences, the greater our opportunity to celebrate them; knowingly (rather than blindly) challenge them; or even have a little fun at one another’s expense.

If familiarity relieves rather than breeds contempt, Mormons may benefit from the popularity of basketballer Jimmer Fredette, or the success of Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. If Jimmermania or Bella Swan can break down barriers, so be it. As I learned in my days as a missionary, sometimes all you need to change the world is one foot in the door.

But as those Gallup results show, Mormons are still on the outside.