What we mean when we say “anti-Mormon”

The term "anti-Mormon" is tossed around too lightly.

A few months back, a video appeared online in which in which comedian Lewis Black read an angry rant submitted by an 18-year-old Mormon apostate. (Fan-submitted rants are a regular part of Black’s shows.) A week after the video appeared online, Jana Riess of Religion News Service casually called it "anti-Mormon."

One of my old mission companions emailed me recently to share his impressions of The Accidental Terrorist, which he wanted to read because I wrote about our time serving together. He generally enjoyed the book and had only minor quibbles with what I'd written about him. But, he told me, he skipped the chapters about LDS Church history because they were "anti-Mormon."

My own sister is one of many church members I've heard call the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon "anti-Mormon," sight unseen.

It's true that the young apostate’s rant denounces the church in the most profane terms possible. It's true that my memoir does not exactly paint the church, or Joseph Smith, in a rosy light. And it's improbable but undeniable that one unfortunate character in The Book of Mormon gets a Book of Mormon forcibly inserted where the sun doesn't shine.

Tarring and feathering of Joseph Smith

The LDS faith and its adherents have an old history of being persecuted—tarred and feathered, driven from their homes, even raped, beaten, and killed—and they are understandably sensitive about being treated or portrayed poorly. But are any of the examples above truly anti-Mormon?

I suppose it depends on how one defines "anti-Mormon." Certainly, growing up in the church I was taught that any books or other material that spoke ill of the church or contradicted its doctrines was anti-Mormon, and that I must avoid it or allow Satan a foothold in my heart.

I can understand why I was taught this. Contradictory facts and opinions can lead to doubt, and doubt can lead to apostasy. And anyway, Mormons historically have plenty of reason to fear that people might want to wipe them out, so why pay any heed to potential murderers?

But consider a religion with a much longer history of being persecuted—Judaism. There's a lot of anti-Semitism in the world, and no shortage of people who would love to harm Jews, strip them of their rights, and run them out of town and country.

As a thought experiment, suppose that you have a devout Jewish friend whose attempt to live faithfully under Talmudic law appears to be making him unhappy and depressed. You sit down with your friend, relate your observations, and suggest that he might be happier if he abandons his faith and stops practicing.

Question: Would this make you an anti-Semite?

Of course not. You're not trying to harm Jews or stamp out their faith. You're not even making a value judgment about Judaism as a whole, good or bad. You are making a suggestion to one friend relating to his own personal agency and happiness. That's all.

Now imagine that you're a Mormon missionary, trudging around with your partner and knocking on people's doors in an attempt to convert them to your faith. You reach a house with a small shrine to the Virgin Mary in the front yard. When the homeowner answers the front door, you ask if you can come inside and explain some of the basics of your faith, which you implicitly believe to be superior to his. Does this make you anti-Catholic?

The homeowner says, "You seem like nice boys. I'll be happy to let you come in and tell me about your Book of Mormon, but only on the condition that when you're done you let me tell you some things about your religion and its history that you may not have been told about."

You back away a little and stammer, "Er, no thank you. We don't want to hear any of your anti-Mormon teachings."

I admit that I fell prey to this very fallacy when I was missionary—able to preach my faith without considering my words to be anti-Catholic, or anti-Lutheran, or anti-Semitic, or anti-atheist, but unable to hear any opposing opinions without considering them to be anti-Mormon. Willing to have my say, but not willing to listen to anyone else's.

'Trapped by the Mormons' poster
This is no way to go through life—paranoid that everyone who attends a different church, or no church at all, is trying to bring you down. And this is just not the case. I would never deny that there are some true anti-Mormons in the world, but most people are not that way. Most people are just trying to make their own way through the world as best they can.

I do not consider myself anti-Mormon. I do not enjoy being called that, though I've been called it a lot. Yes, I dispute the teachings of the Mormon church, which I believe do significant harm to certain classes of people, but I wish Mormons themselves no harm and have no interest in seeing them demonized.

From time to time, some undeniably anti-Mormon group will link to something I've written and claim it as evidence that Mormons are Satan-worshiping monsters who can't get through the day without eating the souls of small children. When I come across something like this, I ask the perpetrators please to remove the link. I have no interest in helping anyone push those kinds of views. Hey, my mother is a Mormon, and I'm pretty sure she doesn't snack on souls.

But I also believe that Mormons as a whole need to toughen up and recognize that not everyone who disagrees with them is trying to hurt them. That you can't walk around preaching to the world while condemning the world for preaching back at you. That our young apostate friend is ranting not because he hates you but because he's trying to shrug out from under the weight of something that has hurt him. That I am writing about Joseph Smith not to mock him but to understand as best I can, from my own experience and research, how and why he could do the things he did. That Trey Parker and Matt Stone are ultimately more interested in exploring what makes people of disparate backgrounds alike than what makes them different or strange.

Yes, there absolutely was a time when an anti-Mormon was someone advocating or engaging in violence and intimidation against Mormons. Today, what the term usually means is "I'm not interested in having a conversation about this because it makes me feel uncomfortable."

"Anti-Mormon" is a powerful and loaded term to lob at someone who is probably only trying to have a conversation, or trying to relate his or her own personal experiences. If Mormons used it less, I would guess their sense of persecution would lessen. And maybe it would be a little easier for all of us to understand one another other, to cut one another more slack, and to feel comfortable being ourselves in or out of the faith, whatever form those selves might take.  

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill

The Accidental Terrorist: Order Your Copy Now!

About the Book

What happens when an ambivalent young Mormon missionary is pushed to the limit in a challenge to prove his faith? Hint: the outcome is explosive. The Accidental Terrorist is the long-awaited memoir from Hugo and Nebula Award–nominated author William Shunn, based on his popular podcast. Available now from Sinister Regard!