Fear of Muslims and Mormons

By Michael H. O’Donnell

People have a history of deep distrusting anything or anyone outside their narrow sphere of personal experience. Americans are no exception.

It may be why casting a wide net of scorn over anyone who professes to embrace the Muslim faith is relatively effortless. Given the fact we’re essentially at war with a crazed faction of that faith goes a long way toward fostering blanket condemnation.

Sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell recently published a book on religions most disliked in America titled “American Grace” and it’s no surprise that Muslims topped the list.

However, the majority population in this area should take note that Mormons finished with a bronze medal in the dislike Olympics.

Putnam is a Harvard professor of political science and Campbell is the counterpart at Notre Dame. Their book explores how religion both divides and unites people in this country and includes information gathered in extensive surveys of the American public.

Let’s look at the history of the Latter-Day Saints and public opinion.

In 1833, just three years after Joseph Smith founded his new religion, an article in the Louisville Daily Herald in Kentucky labeled the “Book of Mormon” as something created by “Satan and his emissaries” to spread “lies and evil reports.”

Anti-Mormon sentiment grew as more people converted to the religion. In 1838, then-Gov. Lilburn Briggs signed an executive order in Missouri that called for the removal of Mormons from his state.

“The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace — their outrages are beyond all description,” the order stated.

Fired up by the governor’s declaration, a renegade militia attacked an LDS settlement near Haun’s Mill and killed 18 Mormons three days later.

Fearing for their lives, Mormons rallied and formed their own military body within six years. Headquartered in Nauvoo, Illinois, the Nauvoo Legion grew in size to be as large as one-quarter of the U.S. Army at the time, according to historians.

Things became more tense when a short-lived newspaper in Nauvoo challenged Joseph Smith and the new religion’s beliefs regarding plural marriage and “eternal progression.” Smith declared martial law in Nauvoo and declared the newspaper a public nuisance.

This led to the state of Illinois arresting Smith for treason and he was killed by a mob while being held in custody. Under public pressure, Mormons fled to the West. By 1847, the Mormons had established a new base in Salt Lake Valley, Utah.

The trouble wasn’t over. Fearing that Mormons were rebelling against the government of the United States, President James Buchanan launched the Utah War in 1857. The one-year fight was followed by a tense relationship between federal political leadership in Washington and LDS leader Brigham Young.

All this can be chalked up to the dusty book covers of history, but the roots of distrust and violence all came about because a group of people embraced religious ideas that were either novel or outside the accepted norms at the time.

Mormons were different. Their customs were suspect. Evangelical Christians questioned their doctrine. That doctrine could be interpreted as a blueprint for a Zionist kingdom or “Theodemocracy” where only the “righteous” would have the power to rule.

I’m not going to go into the world of “magic underwear” and a prized ticket to the planet Kolob as it applies to LDS doctrine.

But statements from Brigham Young about a peaceful kingdom ruled only by people “filled with the Spirit of God, with the light of God, with the power of God,” are open to many interpretations.

So is the Quran. Instead of God, you’ve got Allah.

Non-believers of either the Muslim or Mormon faiths usually draw conclusions about both based on limited experience and stereotypes. We tend to do that with everything we don’t know.

I remember well the nonsense my buddies told me about women and sex when I was in junior high. The ignorance was deep, but sincere.

Are there murderous zealots within the Muslim faith? No doubt about it. Islamic terrorists have a death grip on parts of the Arab world and their poison has spread.

But before we run out into the world shouting about the need to fear, isolate and punish a large group of people because of our perception of their beliefs, let’s take a moment to reflect on our own.

My biblical knowledge may be a tad skinny, but I think there’s something written about not wronging or oppressing strangers because, in so many ways, we’re all strangers.

Michael H. O’Donnell is the assistant managing editor of the Idaho State Journal.