Matthew Bowman is an associate professor of history and religion and Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif.
More precisely, how did we get to the point where the BYU graduate who captured the chant on video could tell a reporter that she was disappointed, though not necessarily surprised because “you don’t make fun of a lot of religions, but Mormons are free game”?
The next day, University of Oregon officials apologized, calling the chant “offensive and disgraceful.” But that those students did not seem to feel the same way struck me, both as a historian of religion in the United States and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The arc of the church’s history, from an object of fear and confusion in the 19th century, to hard-won respectability by the mid-20th century, to “free game” today, tells us a great deal about the church itself, but also about the place of religion in the United States.
Joseph Smith began telling his family that he was receiving revelations in the 1820s. After publishing the Book of Mormon in 1829, he claimed the mantle of a prophet and founded the church in 1830. Until his assassination at the hands of a mob in 1844, he led the church across the country and toward ever-more-countercultural practices and beliefs. The practice of polygamy is the best known of these, but the church also experimented with economic communalism for decades.
After Smith’s death, thousands of members of the LDS church fled west under the leadership of Brigham Young, eventually finding relative safety in the Utah territory in 1847. For decades afterward, the territory was casually theocratic, as church leaders selected the candidates in virtually every election.
But from the 1880s through the 1910s, through a combination of sustained prosecutions, confiscation of property and bad publicity, Congress beat much of the countercultural impulse out of the church. LDS leaders enacted a concerted, mostly successful effort to drive polygamists out of their church. They instructed members to embrace conventional U.S. politics. LDS businessmen reached out across the country, and LDS students enrolled at universities nationwide.
By the 1950s, the LDS church had attained such respectability that Ezra Taft Benson, one of the highest church leaders, could be named agriculture secretary in the Eisenhower administration and be featured, along with his wife and children, on Edward R. Murrow’s popular news show as an exemplary American family. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (as it was then called) regularly toured the nation. All seemed well.
But by the 1980s, though, this assimilation and acceptance had begun to fade.
American evangelical Christians were storming back into politics, and alongside campaigns against abortion and no-fault divorce, some conservative religious leaders engaged in “anti-cult” efforts that targeted relatively small religious movements, including the LDS church. Baptist minister Ed Decker, a former Mormon, attracted attention in the 1980s with a book and film called the “God Makers,” presenting LDS history and beliefs in the most lurid light possible.
By the 1990s, this parodic version of the church entered mainstream U.S. culture in the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the television show “South Park” and the Broadway musical the “Book of Mormon,” both of which lampoon LDS church members as ostensibly nice, but also terminally stupid and ridiculous.
So, what seemed in the 1950s to be the epitome of wholesome Americanness had become by the turn of the 21st century simultaneously naïve and stodgy. Many Democrats mocked Mitt Romney’s nomination as Republican candidate for the presidency in 2012 on just those grounds – he was a “Ken doll” of a candidate, his hair too perfect, his family too healthy, his life profoundly disconnected from gritty American reality.
By the early 21st century, the ideals the church had embraced in order to find acceptance in the United States made the church seem alien again, and particularly so to many progressives. And this might help explain the chant at the Oregon football game. (BYU fans reportedly heard the same chant last fall during a game against the University of Southern California.)
In the early 1980s, the LDS church joined the successful conservative fight against the Equal Rights Amendment. Later, the church became perhaps the most prominent opponent of the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage. More recently, Brigham Young University’s masters’ program in speech-language pathology was subjected to an accreditation review due to the university’s determination that treating transgender students in the program’s clinic was against the university’s religious mission.
And, of course, though a BYU investigation said it found no evidence to support the story, a Duke volleyball player’s claim that students shouted racial slurs at her during a recent game at BYU has shined light on the church’s troubled history with race.
Put bluntly, the LDS church has found itself, willingly or not, on the side of cultural issues decidedly not favored by most young people in the United States.
It is a grim irony that a church that tried so hard to gain respectability found the prize slipping away again almost as soon as it was achieved.