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Why scholar thinks Mormons should support Ground Zero Mosque

Published: Monday, March 14 2011 9:30 a.m. MDT

OREM, Utah — Members of a mistrusted religion were brought before Congress for hearings. They were grilled on every aspect of their faith and lives. Political and public opinion was against them as they tried to assert their loyalty to the United States.

The year was 1904 and Mormonism was put on trial in the nation's capital city as Congress tried to decide whether to seat duly elected Utahn Reed Smoot in the Senate.

Mormons know what it is like to be a hated religious minority, said Stephen Prothero, a Boston University professor of religion and New York Times bestselling author of "Religious Literacy: What Every American Need to Know — and Doesn't" and "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter."

Because Mormons know what it is like to have to fight for their religious rights, Prothero was surprised and disappointed that Mormons didn't seem to be supporting the rights of another religious minority to build a Muslim community center and mosque at Park 51 near Ground Zero in Manhattan.

Prothero was speaking on Friday at the 11th annual Mormon Studies Conference at Utah Valley University titled "Mormonism and Islam: Commonality and Cooperation Between Abrahamic Faiths."

From the beginning of the LDS Church, comparisons were made by various critics between Mormons and Muslims: a prophet, an angel, revelation, new scripture and polygamy.

Even the Mormons' trek west was compared to Mohammad's flight from Mecca to Medina. "These comparisons were a staple of Christian critics of Mormonism who knew that any similarities that they could draw between the LDS Church and Islam will cast Mormons in a bad light," Prothero said.

But Mormonism has made a transformation over the years in public opinion and acceptance.

Prothero said the traditional story of Mormonism is that it was reviled until it renounced plural marriage in the 1890s. After that, it was relatively smooth sailing to acceptance. "Today the Mormons are quintessentially American — more American than I am, perhaps, given my residence in the irredeemably liberal state of Massachusetts," Prothero said to laughter. "Mormons are seen through much of America — with the exception of Boston, Cambridge and San Francisco — as a model minority."

He said that some even say that Mormonism is the quintessential American religion.

"Islam has not fared nearly as well in the American imagination," he said. "When you think of Mormons today, you think of Mitt Romney, Harry Reid and Donny and Marie. When you think of Muslims, you think of Osama bin Laden."

Islam was basically invisible during much of American history, until the 1960s with the rise of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and the Nation of Islam in the public consciousness. "Since then, any recognition Muslims have achieved has been decidedly negative and even horrifying at times," Prothero said.

But notwithstanding low public opinions, some have spoken out on behalf of Muslims. President George W. Bush did it often, Prothero said. Japanese Buddhists spoke out forcefully in behalf of Muslims after 9-11 — remembering what had happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II.

But have the Mormons remembered their own persecution and their own status in public opinion? Prothero doesn't think so.

"I immediately thought that my former governor, Mitt Romney, might distinguish himself from other Republicans by speaking out for religious freedom."

Prothero called Romney's 2007 campaign speech on religion an "instant classic in American Civil Religion. … I love the speech." In the speech Romney identified himself as part of a religious minority and spoke out against religious bigotry.

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