Anti-Mormonism: Definition, Debate, and Status in the US

Mormons may not be on top of the list when the topic of “anti-religious hate crimes” is discussed, they still get a share of 0.9% (15 individuals) of hate crimes as reported in 2017 and are still increasing according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Crime statistics for anti-Mormon bias were tracked starting 2015 and have increased from 2016 to 2017 doubling in occurrence, jumping from seven recorded incidents to fifteen in just a year. 

There are three important things that should be noted when tackling this topic. 

First, there is a significant contention between anti-Mormon bias and anti-Mormonism and are not equated synonymously in definition which shall be discussed later on in this article. 

Second, there is confusion whether these crimes refer to which Mormon branch such as the Community of Christ, the Mormon Fundamentalist, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In most sources like Wikipedia, the term “Mormon” is more closely and more often associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS Church) as this by far, is the largest branch than all the other churches combined. (Also, as respect to their request, they shall be referred to as Latter Day Saints instead of LDS.

Third, hate crimes are defined by FBI on their website as,

“For the purposes of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.”

According to Atty. Janet Portman of Lawyers.com,  

A criminal offense (a crime) is a type of wrongdoing that we distinguish from a civil wrong. Crimes are behaviors that society views as offending not just the specific victim, but also the sensibilities of society as a whole. Another way of explaining a crime is to say that the behavior violates society’s moral standards. By contrast, a civil wrong involves misbehavior towards specific victims, but society doesn’t consider the act to be an affront to the public or widely held moral beliefs.

That is to point out that the statistics only cover criminal offenses but that is not the whole image of anti-Mormon or anti-Mormonism for that matter. In accounts of modern day opposition, Mormons experience discrimination largely on website, video, podcast, and other media which offer alternate views about Mormonism. Second, protests are generally non-violent and occur during large LDS gatherings such as their annual General Conference as well as LDS pageants or even at events like construction of LDS . Also, they are on the receiving end of verbal discrimination such as being tagged as “non-Christians”. Opposition also generally believes that the claims of the Latter Day Saints’ church’s claims to divine origin are false. Aside from that, they also receive statements that classify their religion as based on fraud and/or “deceit on the part of its past and present leaders”. 

Although numbers do not present an attention-catching urgency compared to other religions like Jewish or Islam which top the list of “most hated religion” in the US, Mormons still receive some level of discrimination that extends beyond numbers. 

Definition: Mormon and Mormonism 

Mormons are a religious as well as cultural group related to Mormonism which is the predominant religious tradition of the Latter Day Saints movement of Restorationist Christianity started by Joseph Smith in New York during the 1820s until the 1830s. 

Historically, the word Mormon is derived from the Book of Mormon, a religious text published by the founder Joseph Smith. According to Smith, he translated this religious text from golden plates with divine assistance. The book talks about the “chronicles of early indigenous peoples of America and their dealings with God” and basing off from this book, Smith’s followers were widely known and called as Mormons and their faith as Mormonism. Initially, the term was considered derogatory and had been also used in a mocking way as well but Mormons no longer consider it as such. 

Smith died in 1844 (by a mob while awaiting trial) and the movement split into several groups, each with their own leaders. The majority of the movement followed Brigham Young while there were smaller groups led by Joseph Smith III, Sidney Rigodon, and James Strang. 

Those who followed Brigham Young went on a westward journey to the area that became the Utah Territory and finally calling themselves The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Other sects include Mormon Fundamentalism which upholds the 19th century doctrine of polygamy, the Community of Christ which is the second largest denomination who does not identify as Mormon. Instead, it follows a Trinitarian Christian Restorationist Theology. 

The term “Mormon” was used to refer to all members of the group and their united faith as “Mormonism” but now refer solely to the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS Church). 

Still, Mormonism shares common beliefs with the rest of the Latter Day Saint movement such as belief in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. It also accepts the Pearl of Great Price as part of the faith’s spiritual canon which teaches eternal marriage, eternal progression, and polygamy or plural marriage. Although it must be noted that the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS Church) has abandoned the practice of polygamy since 1890. 

Are Mormons… Christians?

The categorization of Mormonism as part of Christianity and its members identifying themselves as Christians have brought discrimination towards individuals and the religion as well and has led to brandings such as “non-Christian” and “fraud religion”. 

Since its beginnings, the faith has already proclaimed itself to be “Christ’s Church restored with its original authority, structure and power” and also maintains that existing denominations believed in incorrect doctrines and as such, they were not acknowledged by God as his church and kingdom. It quickly gained a large following of Christian seekers but there had been a shift by the 1830s wherein American Christians gradually came to view the church’s early doctrines and practices as 

“politically and culturally subversive, as well as doctrinally heretical, abominable, and condemnable.”

This has led to a series of serious violence between Mormons and those who identify as orthodox Christians belonging to Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Although there had been significant decline in the violence, Mormonism and Christianity still have a complex theological and sociological relationship lying on certain major differences such as the non-acceptance of Mormons of one of the major doctrines of Christianity which is the Trinitarian view codified in the Nicene and Nicene Constantinople Creed of 325 and 381. Additionally, Mormons base their beliefs not only on the Bible but also on supporting texts such as the Book of Mormons by Joseph Smith which conflicts with orthodox Christianity which uses only the Bible. 

Focusing on the differences between these two religions, some Christians do not consider Mormons as part of their community and to an extent have called them as “cult” and some Mormons are offended by being characterized as “non-Christian”. Although some Christians do consider them as Christians but to a distinction of it as a sect. 

The Debate: Anti-Mormon vs Anti-Mormonism

The term “anti-Mormon” first appeared in 1833 in the Louisville Daily Herald article, “The Mormons and the Anti-Mormons” which was also arguably the first publication that called believers of the Book of Mormon as “Mormons”. In 1834, Eber D. Howe published a book entitled, “Mormonism Unvailed” which contained strong criticisms against the faith. In 1841, an Anti-Mormon almanac was published and in response, the Latter Day Saint Time and Seasons published its statement. 

“Although the Anti-Mormon Almanac was designed by “Satan and his emissaries” to flood the world with “lies and evil reports”, still “we are assured that in the providence of God they will ultimately tend to the glory of God—the spread of truth and the good of the church.”

Today the term is now defined as, 

“discrimination, persecution, hostility or prejudice directed against the Latter Day Saint movement, particularly The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church).”

This term is often used as a descriptor for people or literature or publications that are critical of the faith’s adherents, institutions, or beliefs. It also extends in description for any physical attack against the Latter Day Saint movement as a whole. 

Another definition is offered by William O. Nelson, Latter Day Saint scholar, referencing from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism written by Daniel Ludlow. He suggests that “anti-Mormon” is 

“any hostile or polemic opposition to Mormonism or to the Latter-day Saints, such as maligning Joseph Smith, his successors, or the doctrines or practices of the Church. Though sometimes well intended, anti-Mormon publications have often taken the form of invective, falsehood, demeaning caricature, prejudice, and legal harassment, leading to both verbal and physical assault.”

The use of “anti-Mormon” had received several contentions and many have argued that the term heavily implied that the criticism of Mormonism stems from an inherent “anti-Mormon” prejudice directed at an individual rather than to the belief system which merits legitimate factual debate or an intellectual dialogue. As such, to be labelled as “anti-Mormon” is “both offensive and inaccurate.” Another also offered a profound elaboration of such implication. 

It is also helpful to know that Mormons are a group of people united around a belief system. Therefore, to be “anti-Mormon” is to be against people. Christians who desire to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Mormons are never to come against people of any stripe. Yes, evangelical Christians do have strong disagreements with Mormonism, but the argument is with a belief system and not a people. The LDS people are no better or no worse than any other group of people. Any dispute is to be a disagreement with the “ism”, not the “Mormon”.

It also argues that the use of “anti-Mormon” is equated as an attack to an individual used in advantage by the Latter Day Saints movement to disavow facts and frames the context of persecution into a narrative of persecution complex which promote the “ideal of a promised heavenly reward for enduring persecution for one’s belief.”

Mormonism and Anti-Mormonism in the US

The Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints is based in Salt Lake City, Utah which has over 16 million members spread across the globe with significant populations in Mexico, Brazil, Philippines, Chile, Peru, Argentina and America which has the largest population of Mormons with more than 6 million adherents or around 2% of the total American population according to the 2007 Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. 

These 6 million adherents are significantly found in high populations in Utah with around 2 million individuals or roughly 68% of the total population of the state with also 5,229 congregations. There are also around 750,000 Mormons in California, and Arizona with almost 440,000 which currently plays a major role in the upcoming Presidential Elections with Trump versus Biden vying for the highest government position. 

Here are the top ten states with the highest Mormon population. 

  1. Utah (2,126,216)
  2. California (756,507)
  3. Idaho (462,069)
  4. Arizona (436,521)
  5. Texas (362,037)
  6. Washington (289,479)
  7. Nevada (184,703)
  8. Florida (160,266)
  9. Oregon (153,540)
  10. Colorado (150,059)

Projection for the next century or by 2085, Mormon population will dramatically increase up to 285 million worldwide working its way up the ranks of major world religions. 

In the US today, there had been no alarming rates of cases of discrimination against Mormons although as Erica Evans reported in Deseret News in January 2019, the FBI had been investigating hate crimes since World War I but it was only in 2015 that the bureau started looking at the numbers against Latter Day Saints. This was following a 2013 recommendation to include more religious minority groups. 

In a 2012 comprehensive survey by Pew Research Center, they tackled the situation of Mormons in America as this was also the year that a Mormon candidate was among the frontrunners for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. This was the first ever study made by a non-LDS research organization which surveyed more than 1,000 Mormons across the country. 

The survey discovered that six-in-ten Mormons (62%) expressed that American population are uninformed about Mormonism and a significant 46% say that Mormons were facing a lot of discrimination, higher than blacks at 31% and atheists at 13%. Additionally, two-thirds of Mormons surveyed said that Mormonism is not part of the mainstream society which could be partly owed with the small population of Mormons against the religion giants like orthodox Christianity and Islam. In the eyes of Mormons, they cited misperceptions about Mormonism, discrimination, and lack of acceptance in American society as problems they were facing. 

But there is also a general positive feeling towards Mormons and 63% of Mormons think that acceptance of Mormonism in the US is on the rise. 

But here is the catch with anti-Mormonism in the US: Although there is a significant decline in conflict and violence perpetrated against Mormons today as opposed during the 19th and 20th centuries and very low numbers of hate crimes as recorded by the FBI, there is an invisible discrimination against them that cannot be captured by “criminal” numbers. 

In a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center, they found that a third of non-Mormon US adult or roughly 32% say that Mormon faith is not a Christian religion and there is also an additional 17% who are unsure whether Mormonism is Christian. The same survey also discovered that in an open-ended question asking what word best describes the Mormon religion, the most common response was “cult” which speaks volumes on how non-Mormon Americans perceive Mormons. 

Additionally, 54% of Mormons have noted that the portrayal of their religion in television and movies hurt society’s image of Mormons in general and only 15% said that their image is helped throught the portrayal of Mormons in entertainment media. 

The Bottomline

Since hate crimes against Mormons had only been actively tracked in 2015, there would be no formidable conclusion that can be drawn from these cases. 

Only that the national rise in hate (not only against Mormons) can be attributed to the expanding population and diversification in the US as noted by Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at California State University. 

He said, “People are fearful witnessing cultural and demographic changes.”

The dramatic increase in population of Mormons from 5.87 million in 2007 to more than 6.64 million today could have pushed the jump in the number of cases owing to the “natural” reaction of fear and violence with change.

Additionally, there should be given significant doubt with the numbers provided by the FBI despite having the best hate crime data records as reporting of crimes is voluntary and varies by police jurisdiction and should not be taken as a mirror that entirely reflects reality. 

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