In 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published A Study in Scarlet. In his ignorance and arrogance (his only sources on Mormonism were second- or third-hand, clearly biased accounts), and his desire for a rip-roaring good story (in the lurid Victorian literary tradition that maligned many cultures), he published a story so unrecognizable to any serious student of Mormon history that laughter is really the best reaction. Sir Arthur later apologized for his tale, admitting its many falsehoods after he had visited Utah and seen for himself.
One wearies of laughing when, decade after decade, others continue in invincible ignorance. No one laughs at anti-Semites who keep harping on the imaginary atrocities of an imaginary Jewish people. And while respectable opinion at least has turned against anti-Semitism, Mormons today are learning that many are still shouting falsehoods to the approval or at least indifference of otherwise good folks.
It’s not news that Christopher Hitchens dislikes religion, including Mormonism. Anyone approvingly citing his blistering analysis of a rival faith will quickly turn defensive–the attack inevitably reaches one’s own camp. But it is news that he leaves the realm of sober, documented criticism and takes a heavy dose of lurid Victorianism himself.
His October 17, 2011 article on Slate minces no words: LDS (Mormon) beliefs are “weird and sinister.” Saying this of Jews or homosexuals would create a firestorm; saying it of socialists or libertarians would provoke eyerolls and destroy credibility. Saying it of Mormons is par for the course at a respected website.
When Pastor Jeffress of fifteen minutes’ fame called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a cult, he at least had the decency to distinguish between a “theological” cult (i.e., a theology unpalatable to one Robert Jeffress) and a “sociological” cult (those slavering, blank-eyed drones a la Koresh).
Hitchens, however, denies even that generous distinction. He is “not sure” if the LDS church is a cult, but it has a “supreme leader” whose word is “allegedly supreme,” members are “ordered” to “shun” “backslid[ers],” the church is “harder to leave than it was to join,” and members tithe. Cultish,and sociologically so, he implies.
That’s wrong clear through. The only “supreme” word to LDS members is an official statement signed by fifteen leaders. Members are taught to keep company with those who will make it easier to adhere to high standards, but are also encouraged to reach out to and accept those having trouble. Leaving the church is extremely simple, and if the friendly encouragement to stay one encounters is cultish, then we’re all Branch Davidians now. One’s choice to tithe is neither compelled nor enforced, though some privileges are conditioned on it, in the classic pattern of religious sacrifice bringing personal blessings.
How could one claiming thorough knowledge of the church present such a false picture? I suspect that, like the anti-Semites who just know that Jews are guilty of atrocities, Hitchens and his ilk just know that Mormons are sinister. He’s read a few (clearly biased) sources, figures he’s got Joseph Smith’s number, and therefore isn’t content to call Mormons misguided–no, they’re weird and sinister, simultaneously shunning and imprisoning, blindly following unaccountable leaders, skulking and plotting, ripe for exposure.
But the LDS church practically begs any and all to come spend a morning actually sitting in a pew, listening and observing. Those who do so generally find Mormons to be quite normal, overall nice and decent though suffering from the same general distribution of goofs that no group escapes. Hitchens doesn’t recommend that sort of first person research, because anyone doing so would come away laughing at the baseless paranoia now on Slate.
But one can’t accuse him of bigotry, Hitchens protests! He has Documented Historical Facts! Except that he gets it all wrong—not just biased, but wrong. Hitchens ought to know better than to assume that the prosecution of a minority religious figure was justified–Joseph Smith was not convicted and his enemies constantly brought frivolous charges and suits against him. The “either al-Koran or the sword” quote is of extremely dubious provenance. Joseph Smith never “levied war against the federal government,” only lawfully assembling a militia in a manner common to the time, and defensible in light of the violence already suffered. Joseph Smith ran for president on an explicitly anti-slavery platform; early leaders’ views on slavery were nuanced, generally anti-slavery, and on the progressive side of the spectrum for their time. No LDS scripture calls blacks “inferior creation[s],” and the “curse of Cain/Ham” doctrine was a Protestant creation that some early LDS leaders imbibed and overlaid on scripture.
Hitchens’ outrage over the discontinued practice of performing vicarious ordinances for Holocaust victims is puzzling–Mormons’ motives were good and they’ve done their level best to comply with others’ wishes here. Likewise his disdain that Ezra Taft Benson was outspoken politically–a perusal of Benson’s biography would show that church leaders did tell Benson to tone it down, and never to imply official church approval of his opinions. Why not mention that Harry Reid has spoken at BYU? And other prominent Democrats? Or that the church incessantly reminds members of its political neutrality?
The obvious answer: a one-sided portrayal is necessary when one has already decided on the conclusion of “weird and sinister.”
One can, through selection and emphasis, paint a lot of varying pictures about Mormonism–for that matter, of any group. A lurid, Victorian portrait creates buzz and generates page views, but it’s no use calling it history or accuracy or anything other than paranoia. Sir Arthur apologized for his mistakes, Mr. Hitchens. What’s your excuse?