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.
"I thought he might remember how the founder of his religion, Joseph Smith, had been murdered by an anti-Mormon mob. I thought he might recall how the U.S government brought down so much of its coercive power against the LDS Church in the last decades of the 19th century. But unfortunately he did not," Prothero said.
Instead, a Romney spokesperson issued a statement saying that Romney opposed the construction of the mosque.
"Members of minority religions grow complacent," Prothero said.
They think "them" rather than "us." Catholics forget the mobs that burned their convents in the 1800s.
Mormons see Sept. 11 and see the acts of Muslims instead of remembering the acts of Mormons on Sept. 11, 1857, when some members of the LDS Church massacred a wagon train at Mountain Meadows.
"Perhaps I am wrong for holding Mormons to a higher standard, but I do," Prothero said. "I believe that members of a religious group that has been persecuted almost to extinction should stand up and speak out."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints met stiff opposition to the building of a temple in the Boston area about a decade ago, Prothero remembers. "But the Mormons and Constitution won, and the temple was dedicated for use in 2000."
Romney knew this when thinking about the Muslim community center and mosque near Ground Zero, Prothero said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, however, did support the Muslim community center project.
Why aren't more Mormons speaking out?
"I think these Mormon Republican people in power are more Republicans than they are Mormons," Prothero said. "If they took the time to see themselves as at least as Mormon as they are Republican they would do the right thing. They are more faithful to their Republican politics than they are to their Mormon faith."
Eventually, after years of hearings before Congress, Reed Smoot was allowed to take his position and served for decades. Prothero sees the current congressional hearings about Muslim extremism and the public debate about the mosque near Ground Zero as a similar move against an unpopular religious minority.
"Religious groups that have been persecuted in the United States, but have managed to negotiate their way into some measure of legitimization and establishment — and I would add power — bear a special burden to denounce the persecution of other religious minorities in the United States. Call it paying it forward if you will, but it is time for American Mormons to step up, just as Japanese-American Buddhists did after 9-11, and speak out against efforts by officials of the U.S. government to do to Muslims what the government once did to Mormons not so very long ago."
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