Religious minorities can be prone to taking offense too easily. And a persecution complex helps no one. But neither does trading in casual Mormon mockery. “You’d be surprised,” Harvard Law School’s Noah Feldman once observed, “by how many people pride themselves on having no prejudices at all but preserve a little place in their heart for this kind of soft anti-Mormon prejudice.”
Even after Governor Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency brought immense media attention to the LDS Church, the Pew Research Center found that barely half of Americans understand that Mormonism is a “Christian faith.”
And while 7 or 8 percent of Americans say they wouldn’t vote for an otherwise qualified black, Hispanic, or female presidential candidate, fully 18 percent of Americans still say “they would not vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who happens to be a Mormon.” The figure is “virtually the same as the 17 percent who held this attitude in 1967.” Mormons today would evidently fare better than, say, an atheist or Muslim candidate, but the remarkably persistent numbers since 1967 are telling.
Latent anti-Mormon bias may seem harmless enough—after all, Mormons are reluctant to call others out on it. (Instead of picketing The Book of Mormon musical, for example, the Mormon Church bought advertisements in Broadway playbills that say things like, “You’ve seen the show, now read the book.”)
The liberal television personality Lawrence O’Donnell even admitted, after an on-air rant about Mormon founder Joseph Smith, that he wasn’t worried about any negative consequences since “Mormons are the nicest people in the world. … They’ll never take a shot at me.”
There are, meanwhile, consequences for Mormons.
A federal judge told me recently of an Ivy League law professor who sent him a letter of recommendation for a Mormon student, observing that in general Mormons are solid workers but tend to lack “intellectual imagination.” The professor did not know that the judge on the receiving end was himself a Mormon. The same professor sent a similar letter sometime later on behalf of a different Latter-day Saint student. The letter again contained the same caution about the Latter-day Saint’s lack of “intellectual imagination.”
A separate Ivy League student—now a tenured professor at a prestigious university—similarly recalled the shock on one of his professor’s faces when the professor discovered that this student was a Mormon. The noted scholar remarked that he didn’t think Latter-day Saints took “ideas seriously.”
Criticism about another’s beliefs is hard to separate from judgments about a person’s worth or intellectual capacities. But, ironically, it is often the very beliefs that Andersen and others criticize that have produced the pro-social Mormon behaviors so often praised. As The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins observed in partial reaction to Andersen’s piece, “I’m not so sure those ‘ridiculous supernatural beliefs’ can be so easily separated from the values/principles/‘righteousness’ showcased in Mormon life.”