Tag Archives: Mormonism

Is Mormonism the New Evangelicalism?

by Rebecca Borison

With Mitt Romney’s status as Republican presidential candidate now official, Americans have begun in earnest to analyze his characteristics and qualifications. The first topic up for debate seems to be that fact that Romney is a practicing Mormon. The talk of Romney’s affiliation with Mormonism is highly reminiscent of the 1976 elections and Jimmy Carter’s Evangelicalism, which brings to the table an important question: should the President’s religion matter?

In 1976, Moment featured an article by Martin E. Marty titled “Is Carter an Evangelical?” In the article, Marty offers an informative guide to Evangelical Christianity and explores the validity of the Jewish concern over Carter’s religion. Thirty-six years ago, most Americans were fairly clueless about what Evangelical Christianity actually meant; various Christian sects often got bundled together under one umbrella. “Evangelicals have been overlooked in part because they tend to be lumped in the public eye with Fundamentalists,” Marty explains.

Once Marty comes up with a clearer definition of Evangelicalism, he discusses the Evangelical view on Judaism: they believe that a Jewish homeland in Israel fulfills the biblical prophecy and will eventually lead to the Second Coming of Jesus. According to Marty, “nothing in [Carter’s] Evangelical Southern Baptist roots would predispose him to express sentiments that might make Israel’s friends nervous.”

On an individual level, however, Evangelicals (in the 1970s, at least) had very little interaction with Jews and tended to express anti-Semitic notions. Many Evangelicals grow up in the South, where Jews make up a very small minority. Marty refers to a book called Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism and explains that “among ten surveyed denominations, Southern Baptists were least likely to defend the right of Jews to be free of discrimination at vacation resorts, least ready to be sensitive in an anti-Semitic incident, more likely than any other denomination to feel that Jews’ loyalties to Israel might compromise their devotion to America,” and ranked second-highest on an overall “index of anti-Semitic beliefs.”

So while Carter might bring pro-Israel values to his presidency, Jews (and Americans in general) could have been justified in worrying about his ability to be open-minded and pluralistic. In a campaign document called Why Not the Best, Carter attempted to prove that he is more open than most Evangelicals. But according to Marty, Jews still had some reason to worry: “Jews are wary of Carter’s context. To them he is from a distant region, a strange faith, given to expressions of piety that are uncongenial to them.”

Thirty-six years later, we still worry. In the latest issue of Moment, nine rabbis answered the question “Will it matter to Jews if there is a Mormon President?” Across the board, the rabbis strove to ignore labels and judge a candidate for his actions as opposed to his religion. It is important to carefully evaluate the presidential candidates, but simply making assumptions based on religious affiliation would be counter to the religious freedom America proudly upholds.

The New Religious Intolerance: An Interview with Martha Nussbaum

By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

From Switzerland’s ban on minarets, to France’s ban on headscarves, and the controversy that raged over Park 51, the “Ground Zero Mosque” in lower Manhattan, religious fear is on the rise, writes Martha Nussbaum. In her latest book, The New Religious Intolerance, the University of Chicago law professor tackles the politics of fear, and lays out a roadmap for society to overcome its fear of the other, which she warns, “currently disfigure[s] all Western societies.” To learn more, Moment spoke with Nussbaum about religious fear, anti-Semitism, burqas, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and more.

MM: You write, “We should be worried about the upsurge in religious fear and animosity in the United States, as well as in Europe. Fear is accelerating, and we need to try to understand it to think how best to address it.” Can you explain why you think religious fear is accelerating—hasn’t it always been with us?

MN: There are periods of high anxiety and lower anxiety, so when I say it’s accelerating, I mean from what it was 10 years ago. There’s a new upsurge of anxiety about Muslims. 9/11 was the catalyst, as well as the wave of Muslim immigration—Muslims are the fastest growing religious minority in America. Every time you have a new minority coming in, you often have an upsurge in religious anxiety, so this is nothing new. We saw a great deal of anxiety in the late 19th and early 20th century with the waves of Roman Catholic immigration from Southern Europe. In some ways today is not quite as bad as then, because there’s no national political party right now basing its appeal on a nativist agenda the way there was in the 19th century. But we have to watch out.

MM: How did the old religious fear, anti-Semitism, give way to today’s religious fear, Islamophobia?

MN: The treatment of the Jews in Europe is in many ways parallel to the current European treatment of Muslims. If you assimilate, dress like everyone else, marry with us, eat with us, then you can fit in. But if you don’t, then we’re going to regard you with great suspicion. That was the European approach to the Jews, wherever the Jews were allowed to be. The reason was that for many centuries, Europeans have based their idea of national belonging and nationhood on ethnicity and religion. It’s a romantic idea of solidarity, and the idea that if you’re truly one of us, you’re going to have the same language, culture and religion, and you’re going to fit in. America never had that conception of that national identity. We were fortunate to be a nation of immigrations where people came as refugees from various types of religious persecution. So many of the American religious minorities dressed oddly: Quakers wanted to wear their hats in the courtroom, and Jews, of course, dressed in a characteristic way and didn’t want to testify in court on a Saturday. So there were many occasions for Americans to get used to the fact that religion leads people to behave differently. The American conception of national belonging is one of sharing political values, so if you swear to respect our Constitution, that’s enough. Anti-immigrant politics has never really taken off in America. The closest was in the 19th century, when so many Roman Catholics were coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. Anti-Semitism in America was also quite real. But still, it was at the level of refined, polite discrimination in employment. There was social discrimination among elites, but it wasn’t the kind of systematic political discrimination you got in Europe.

MM: You say that fear is a “narcissistic emotion.” Why is that?

MN: Fear has this riveting character that it makes you exceedingly aware of your own body and its own processes. If you read descriptions of fear in combat, it means you’re very alert and alive, but to yourself. Often it blocks the view of other people and other things around you because you’re so focused on survival. It’s an evolved instinct for survival, and it gives the message that you’d better pay close attention to yourself. It can be good, and very helpful, but it also means we neglect the implications of our actions and our policies for other people who are in our area, and we become very focused on warding off threats to ourselves, our families and people like us.

MM: What are some of the inconsistencies in the arguments for the burqa ban?

MN: In general, it’s always a good idea when you make an argument against somebody else’s culture, to first look at your own, and if you have the same problem, to treat the two similarly. The first argument is about security risk of bulky clothing under which you could carry a bomb or a gun. Because Chicago is a very cold place, when I go out in the winter, I’m more covered than a woman in a burqa, even more. I have a floor-length down coat, a shawl over my mouth and nose, a hat pulled down over my eyebrows and sunglasses, so my whole body is covered. And nobody thinks that’s a threat because they’re used to this. So we have to ask ourselves, when do we think that there’s a reason for extra caution? I’m prepared to say that in airports, let’s have the full body scan, as long as everyone has it. I don’t think they should single out the Muslims for special treatment.

The other argument is that you can’t have a good human relationship unless you can see their whole face. I think that’s just wrong. For one thing, eyes are traditionally thought of as the windows to the soul and the main place you make contact. Also, think about all the people with disabilities who can’t see, yet they have rich human relationships. Human beings have many ways of making connections with each other–through the voice, for instance—without seeing each other’s faces.

And then there’s the argument that the burqa objectifies women. I think the fact that women are often treated as objects for male use and control is a real problem. But let’s also think about porn magazines, the treatment of women in advertising and in the media, where women are treated as consumer objects and are encouraged to package themselves for male use and control in a way that eclipses their individuality. If you go to a high school dance, girls are wearing identical micro-skirts and packaging themselves as objects for a simulated group sex ritual that takes the place of dancing. There are lots of practices in our society that objectify women, unfortunately. To complain about one that happens to be the practice of the minority religion and not to examine yourself and the many ways in which you participate in such practices is terrible, especially when the force of law is brought to bear. In America, fortunately we don’t have bans on the burqa and the headscarf. But the French would ban you from walking down the street in a burqa, while you could wear a micro-skirt and your 4-inch heels and they’d think nothing of that. I think it’s just an ugly inconsistency.

MM: You lay out several principles that can be used to overcome religious fear. These seem to be designed for well-intentioned people, but how can they be used to push back against those in power who use religious fear for political gain?

MN: The first of my principles, which is having good constitutional norms, is helpful here. Fortunately we do, because our constitution was written by people who were very alert to religious persecution and religious fears. You can see over time that minorities find relief when they go to court and practices that stigmatize them are found unconstitutional. Again and again we find minorities making law and prevailing because we have good constitutional principles. That’s something that even in bad times, when politicians are doing bad things, it’s a bulwark.

The other things I talk about are consistency and self-examination and the use of a sympathetic imagination. We still shouldn’t despair of these things even in our own political climate because we should keep trying to have a deliberative public culture and to appeal to sympathy. I found that in studying the Park 51 controversy, there was a lot of sympathy. Sometimes it was one-sided sympathy, sympathy for 9/11 victims and their families, and not the Muslims. But even Sarah Palin—who I don’t support politically—expressed a fair amount of sympathy with peaceful Muslims. There were very few people who demonized all Muslims. I think George Bush set a good tone when he said we’re not at war with Islam. Americans both left and right have tended to try to exercise some thoughtfulness and sympathy. I think that reminding people constantly of history and of parallels to anti-Semitism is a useful way to get them to remember what they’re saying and to get them to look at things in a more complicated way.

MM: One interesting aspect of this presidential campaign is that not much has been made of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Does this signal a change in the climate of fear in the United States, or is it something else?

We have heard a fair amount about it. I think that’s why there was so much resistance to Romney early on, and such a desperate search for an alternative. In my earlier book, Liberty of Conscience, I wrote about the demonization of Mormons in the 19th century, which is an unfortunate part of our history. Mormons were pilloried in a way that involved a kind of racism, oddly, because, of course, Mormons look like the dominant white-Anglo culture. But they were described in journalism as having African features, as an African race. There was great demonization and lies about Mormons and the link to polygamy, which at the time was not any worse than the conditions of women in monogamous marriages. Women in monogamous marriages had no property rights and couldn’t get divorced on the ground of cruelty. Women in the territory of Utah had the vote in 1874, which is way before any other Mormon in monogamous America. So there was no reason to think these women were slaves. Today polygamy has long been outlawed by the Mormon religion, so it’s ridiculous to try to link them to that. The thing that ought to be discussed is the fact that Brigham Young is a university that does not have genuine academic freedom because the Mormon elders have decided that it’s okay to fire people whose theology is dissident. I’d like to know if Mitt Romney takes issue with this, and if he speaks up for academic freedom. If he doesn’t, that’s a problem.

MM: What are the consequences if we can’t keep religious fear in check?

MN: What would be bad is to get to the point where there’s demand for laws that are genuinely repressive. Europe has already gotten to that point. Beyond that point, there’s a potential for real violence. We’ve seen this from isolated psychotic individuals such as Anders Breivik in Norway. He may be deranged, but he’s certainly functional and has a program closely linked to right-wing bloggers in America, who have denounced him, but nonetheless his ideas have a lot in common with them. That kind of situation—where unstable individuals are whipped up and violence takes place—that’s what we need to worry about. It has happened in our past; we have had a lot of violence against Mormons, who were murdered, which is why they kept moving further west. We also had Jehovah’s Witnesses who were lynched because people feared they were a threat to American security. Let’s hope we don’t get to that point again—I think we’re not near that now. Let’s just stay vigilant.

Religion in the News

By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

The biggest religion news stories in 2011 involved tensions with Islam, followed by faith in presidential politics, a new Pew report reveals. Some of the key findings in the study, “Religion in the News,” include:

  • Religion coverage made up just 0.7 percent of all mainstream media coverage in 2011, down from two percent in 2010
  • Religion received as much attention as race, gender and LGBT issues
  • Islam made up nearly one-third of all religion news stories last year
  • The top religion stories of the year included: religion in the election, Peter King’s “Radical Islam” congressional hearings, anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, the Westboro Church protests, religion in September 11th commemorations, the Catholic priest abuse scandal and Terry Jones’s Quran burning

For more on religion coverage in the mainstream media, Moment speaks with Jesse Holcomb, a research associate with Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and one of the authors of the study.

MM: Your report says that religion accounted for only 0.7 percent of all mainstream media coverage in 2011. Why do you think religion gets so little attention?

JH: First of all, we’re talking about a fairly big news hole, and by that I mean a large space for a whole variety of topics. There are a lot of topics that get just a small share of that total pie, and religion is one of them. Part of it may be because other topics tend to get a lot of attention—politics, government, in this past year, foreign affairs, economics—and can crowd out the other subjects.

Another potential reason is methodological. In our daily analysis of the mainstream news media, we don’t study every story that appears in every newspaper, and we don’t study the entire hour of a news broadcast, or all 24 hours of a cable channel. We use a sample, so we look at the first half hour of news shows, and with newspapers, it’s the front page as well as the homepage of news websites. So what we’re really looking at is the stories and subjects that get the most attention, that get the most priority by news organizations. These would also presumably be the stories that people see most often. So it is possible that religion might appear inside the newspaper, but what we’re talking about is the top of the newscast. For those reasons—and a combination of other reasons—religion is just not one of those top subjects. However, it does appear as a thread in many other stories, especially politics.

MM: Why does Islam dominate religion news coverage, and what kinds of stories do we see about it?

JH: Muslims represent a numerical minority in the United States, so it is quite striking to see how many of the major religion stories of the year were focused on Islam. Lots of these stories revolve around some sort of conflict or tension. Those are traditionally the kinds of themes that can generate lots of attention. You won’t see as many stories in the top of the news cast that say, “everyone’s getting along.” These conflicts and tensions tend to drive the news agenda, so there may also be something in the zeitgeist of news room culture or perceived public opinion that is concerned about the issue of Islam.

MM: According to the report, the other big religion stories involved faith in politics. Has religion in the presidential race always been such a big story, or has it received more attention this year because of Mitt Romney and Mormonism?

JH: No, religion and politics tends to be a perennial theme in religion coverage in the mainstream news media. It was certainly a big aspect of religion coverage in 2007 and 2008. In fact, even though we have at least two major candidates for whom faith is an important part of their biography, the attention to religion and the campaign this year as a percentage of the whole, is less than it was in 2007, the last time we had a primary. So in fact it has gone down, if you look at those two years side by side.

MM: Do you think this news coverage of Mormonism is helping Americans understand the religion better? One Pew poll found that 62 percent of Mormons in the United States think that Americans know nothing or not too much about their religion, and another said 49 percent of white evangelicals don’t consider Mormonism to be Christianity.

JH: That’s a really good question, but it’s not a question I can answer definitively with our research. I do know that there have been complaints from the Mormon community about the way their faith has been portrayed in the news media, a common one being that Mormons have not been given the opportunity to define themselves in the press, that Mormons are often defined by people of other faiths, or characterized in a certain way by reporters. We can expect that Americans are getting a lot of their information about the Mormon faith through the media, but whether there’s a cause and effect between the kind of coverage there is and their attitudes, I can’t say.

A large portion of the attention to the Mormon faith in political coverage in the past year was focused on one incident, which was when an evangelical pastor who had endorsed Texas Governor Rick Perry came out on the record and suggested that the Mormon faith is a cult. It got a lot of attention, and created some waves. No one in the mainstream media were condoning that kind of speech on the part of that pastor, yet it was a story that got a lot of play. And you could argue, for better or for worse, that it defined that faith in the context of the campaign throughout the year.

MM: Judaism was not mentioned at all in the report. What kind of religion news coverage have Jews seen in 2011?

JH: That’s right. One way that we broke down the media coverage was by looking at which religious faiths got the most attention, and which ones didn’t. So along that spectrum, Judaism was not one of the major faiths that was featured. Although we don’t break it out in the published report, I can tell you that the Jewish faith accounted for about four percent of all religion coverage over the past year. So it’s a small percent—it’s certainly more than Buddhism or Scientology, but it’s significantly less than the attention paid to Islam, Christianity. In the big stories over the year that involved Judaism, there wasn’t necessarily one theme. There were stories about a congressional race in New York involving a Jewish candidate, and stories about archaeologists in Israel digging up the ancient city, and so on—a of collection of stories that didn’t necessarily fall along one special theme.