Reading some recent books, Jan Riess at Beliefnet comes across a very interesting statistic – Mormons are the third most disliked religious group in America. Relying on her sources, she cites three reasons – theological distrust from Evangelicals, ”uber-religious” fears from the secular, and cultural insularity. Again citing her sources, assimilation is argued as the answer to changing this trend – which she then argues is insufficient since Mormons have been on the path of assimilation for 60 years now and this statistic remains unchanged.
Then, in true liberal fashion, she argues for loosening of standards on things like marriage and homosexuality to overcome the “uber-religious” problem. She concludes by arguing for humility. No one can dispute that humility is something that should be sought by all people of faith, but I have not noted it as a particular problem among Mormons – rather I think she posits this argument for the same reasons it is sometimes put forward in Evangelical circles – to add another reason to the pile for why a church should loosen its standards. This is a mistaken idea of what humility means, but this is not the forum for getting into a deep theological discussion of that concept.
There are really two areas of discussion from this post that are fascinating. The first is the idea that a church, any church, should change its teachings or standards on the basis of sociological respect. No church exists to be popular – it exists to institutionalize and preserve that which it believes to be truth, and to spread that truth to all it can convince to listen. To change purely for the sake of popularity is to change the fundamental reason why the church exists. Again, this could rapidly become a deep philosophical discussion and this is not the venue for that.
The most interesting discussion to come from this has to do with the political consequences of this statistic for Mitt Romney or any other Mormon seeking high office. It’s a huge problem, but it is also a possible blessing. Fear of religiosity in general from a secular public is something that Evangelicals also experience. In many ways, Mormons are the tip of the spear on this issue – they take the largest force, but it is a force we all experience. Religious people general are still a a majority in this nation and if that shared experience can be capitalized upon, it can become an overwhelming political force.
The problem, of course is the theological distrust issue – that makes building the shared experience very difficult. That, obviously, means that any candidate has to emphasize again and again the shared aspects of the experience, while doing everything in his/her power to not get near the theological issues. I found Hugh Hewitt’s interview of George W. Bush last night very instructive. (Aside, in my opinion it is the best interview Hewitt, perhaps the best interviewer in radio, has ever done – it is worth the price of subscription just to listen to this one podcast.) Bush was clearly a man of deep and abiding faith – to my Protestant Evangelical ears he really did sound just like “one of us.” This was a very different tone than I heard from him during the campaigns or his time of service in office, when he was prone to pat statements saying little and deflecting the issue. Frankly, during his service I thought his admissions of faith more perfunctory than heart-felt, more intellectual than life-changing. That is precisely the kind of tone that a Mormon candidate must find, and it is hard because it seems disingenuous, but nothing could be further from the truth – it is service on the largest of scales. This is also more difficult for a Mormon because as the “tip of the spear” people do not tend to believe there are “casual” Mormons.
But this all brings one back to assimilation. It’s about shading and nuance, tipping the scales not overwhelmingly but just enough so people inclined in a direction will give Mormons the benefit of the doubt – that involves trust that can only be built in relationship. The Mormon candidate has to press more flesh and make more friends than an Evangelical. And Mormons that want to help him/her need to be out there pressing the flesh too – not relying on their missionaries, but the grown-ups with other grown-ups.
Hey! – it’s Christmas, time to go to a few parties.