The Professorial Prejudice Against Mormons
Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. He serves as executive editor of the journal Perspectives on Political Science, and has been chair of the politics and literature section of the American Political Science Association. He also served on the editorial board of the new bilingual critical edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals. He has written or edited fifteen books and over 200 articles and chapters in a wide variety of venues. He was the 2007 winner of the Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters.\r\n\r\nLawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004 – 09. His most recent book, Modern and American Dignity, is available from ISI Books.\r\n\r\nFollow him on Twitter @peteralawler.
Here’s an article by Thomas C. Terry getting a lot of attention on how openly our professors disparage Mormons in ways they would be ashamed to talk about members of various minorities—from blacks to gays—or women or members of other organized religions—from Catholics to Muslims.
The most respectable reasons for this prejudice, professors believe, is that Mormons themselves are bigots. They marginalize gays, they don’t allow women to hold high positions in the church, and they used to have to some strange view of black inferiority. They used to be and may still secretly be polygamists. They put pressure on people to get married young and have large families, and generally the pressure is also on for the wife to take primary responsibility for caregiving in the huge households. As long as a married couple is open to (lots of) children, contraception can be used prudently to space kids out. Abortion can be chosen in extreme cases. But women have no right to use contraception or abortion to find safe sexual pleasure outside of marriage, and they aren’t to use either to avoid being a mom. Women who are active Mormons aren’t supposed to have any and, in fact, have remarkably little sex outside of marriage.
But the main reason for the disparagement, I think, is that the Mormons live what they believe. They formed themselves into a tight community based on their doctrines, and they view themselves as “in it for eternity.” Each person has an eternal destiny and is to live accordingly. Even marriage is supposed to be for eternity, although Mormons reluctantly allow divorce as a last resort. This life for each person is one among many on the way to becoming a god.
So Mormons don’t think of themselves as free individuals able to live as they please, with human rights and no corresponding human duties. They are certainly among the most genuinely countercultural Americans. And one French philosopher actually told me that Provo, Utah (95% Mormon and home of BYU) is the strangest and most wonderful (in the sense of inspiring wonder) place in the Western world.
And I haven’t even talked about the Mormon prohibition of drinking both coffee and beer—two habits that might make it easier for Mormons to make friends with non-Mormons. One reason, it’s speculated, that many voters don’t find Mitt Romney likeable is that they can’t imagine having a beer with him. Other people claim they can't cuddle up to MItt knowing that his underwear is different from theirs.
America is getting more libertarian all the time. And it’s inevitable that those who pride themselves in being nonconforming, skeptical autonomous individuals would be somewhat creeped out by Mormon communal discipline and dogmatism. Having said that, any open-minded individualist would have to admit that there are both costs and benefits to our creeping and sometimes creepy libertarian drift.
Our author gives us a lot of inconvenient facts about Mormon Utah, showing perhaps its superiority in key areas of human flourishing and human happiness:
Utah is about 72 percent Mormon, so it's a pretty good representation of Mormonism. Among the 50 states, Utah has the lowest child poverty rate, the lowest teen pregnancy rate, the third-lowest abortion rate, the third-highest high school graduate rate at 94 percent, the highest scores on Advanced Placement exams, fewest births to unwed mothers (also the highest overall birthrate), lowest cancer rate, lowest smoking rate, lowest per capita rate of alcohol use, and, arguably, the most comprehensive and universal state health insurance system in the U.S . Furthermore, Mormons as a group have the lowest rates of violence and depression among religious groups, are seven times less likely to commit suicide (if active church members), and have the lowest divorce rates of any social-religious group. Sixty-five percent of Utah residents have personal computers, the highest penetration rate in the country. Crime has decreased in the state of Utah by anywhere from 15-18 percent over the past 10 years.
Mormon women are more likely to be employed in professional occupations than Catholic or Protestant women (similar to Jewish women) and more likely to graduate from college than Catholic or Protestant women (but less than Jewish women). One survey indicated Mormon women experience more orgasms and are more satisfied with their married lives.
Almost all of these facts can be traced to the strength of Mormon community and the support it gives to family life. Suicide, for example, most often is a result, as Durkheim discovered, of social detachment and loneliness.
Surprising to some might be the Mormon devotion to education and technology, including the education and professional development of women. Mormon women don’t regard getting pregnant as the end of one’s education. Pregnancy, for one thing, about never comes outside of marriage, and Mormons marry young. The BYU campus is crawling with baby carriages and married couples, showing that overcoming our birth dearth wouldn’t require returning to a lower level of personal accomplishment for either men or women. There’s a lot of church-based communal support for those who follow the tough but “doable” road of combining marriage, children, and studying hard. Faithfully monogamous people who have lots of kids might be repressed in some ways but they’re also very erotic in others. I’m not saying I have full confidence in some study about self-reported orgasms.
I’ve visited BYU a few times, and, despite some singularly religious features to the curriculum, it must be the best or nearly the best very large university in our country. Anyone from outside would be either put off or impressed (or both) by the amount of religious conformity that binds together the very accomplished (by any secular standard) faculty. But that conformity is compatible with all sorts of methodological and ideological diversity. I would guess maybe half or even more of the BYU faculty in the social sciences and humanities voted for Obama last time. That’s a lot less than virtually universal support he received at Harvard. Those facts would be hard to spin to prove that the Harvard faculty is more open-minded.
I’m no Mormon, and I couldn’t make it for long in Provo. But maybe sophisticated Americans need some fact-based lessons in Mormon acceptance. Professors, in many ways, hate genuine diversity even more than most folks.
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