Specifically, how did we get to the point where the BYU graduate who captured the singing on video was able to tell a reporter that she was disappointed, but not necessarily surprised because “you don’t make fun of a lot of religions, but Mormons are free play”?
The following day, University of Oregon officials issued an apology, calling the chant “offensive and shameful”. But the fact that these students don’t seem to feel the same struck me, both as a historian of religion in the United States and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The arc of the church’s history, from an object of fear and confusion in the 19th century, to hard-earned respectability in the mid-20th century, to “free play” today, tells us a lot about the church itself, but also on the place of religion in the United States.
Joseph Smith began telling his family that he was receiving revelations in the 1820s. After publishing the Book of Mormon in 1829, he claimed the mantle of a prophet and founded the church in 1830. Until his murdered at the hands of a mob in 1844, he led the church across the country and into ever more countercultural practices. and beliefs. The practice of polygamy is the best known of these, but the Church has also experimented economic communalism for decades.
After Smith’s death, thousands of LDS church members fled west under the leadership of Brigham Young, eventually finding relative safety in the Utah Territory in 1847. For decades thereafter, the territory was casually theocratic, as Church leaders selected candidates in virtually every election.
But from the 1880s through the 1910s, through a combination of sustained lawsuits, asset forfeiture, and bad publicity, Congress drove out much of the church’s countercultural impulse. LDS leaders made a concerted effort, usually successful, to drive polygamists out of their church. They asked members to embrace conventional American politics. LDS businessmen reached out across the country, and LDS students enrolled in universities nationwide.
By the 1950s, the LDS church had achieved such respectability that Ezra Taft Benson, one of the church’s most senior leaders, could be appointed secretary of agriculture in the Eisenhower administration and be Featured, with his wife and children, on Edward R. Murrow’s popular news program as an exemplary American family. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (as it was then called) regularly toured the country. Everything seemed fine.
But by the 1980s, however, that assimilation and acceptance had begun to fade.
American evangelical Christians were making a strong comeback in politics, and alongside campaigns against abortion and no-fault divorce, some conservative religious leaders engaged in “anti-cult” efforts that targeted relatively small religious movements, including the LDS Church. Baptist pastor Ed Deckera former Mormon, came to attention in the 1980s with a book and film called the “God Makers”, presenting LDS history and beliefs in the most sinister light possible.
In the 1990s, this parody version of the church entered mainstream American culture in the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the TV show “South Park” and the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon”. who both ridicule LDS church members as ostensibly nice, but also stupid and terminally ridiculous.
So what seemed in the 1950s to be the epitome of wholesome Americanness had by the turn of the 21st century become both naive and clumsy. Many Democrats scoffed at Mitt Romney’s nomination as the Republican presidential nominee in 2012 for precisely these reasons — he was a “Ken dollof a candidate, his hair too perfect, his family too healthy, his life deeply disconnected from harsh American reality.
At the start of the 21st century, the ideals the church had embraced to gain acceptance in the United States made the church seem foreign again, and especially to many progressives. And that might help explain the chanting at the Oregon football game. (BYU fans reportedly heard the same chant last fall during a game against the University of Southern California.)
In the early 1980s, the LDS Church joined the successful conservative fight against the Equal Rights Amendment. Later, the church became perhaps the most prominent opponent of the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage. More recently, Brigham Young University’s master’s program in speech-language pathology has undergone a accreditation review due to the university’s determination that the treatment of transgender students in the program’s clinic was contrary to the university’s religious mission.
And, of course, although a BYU investigation said it found no evidence to support the story, a Duke volleyball player’s claim that students had shouted racial slurs during a recent game at BYU shone a light on the church’s troubled history with race.
Frankly speaking, the LDS Church has found itself, willingly or not, on the side of cultural issues decidedly not favored by most young people in the United States.
It’s a dark irony that a church that tried so hard to gain respectability saw the award go away almost as soon as it was won.