One of the stock narratives of the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been that the Latter-day Saints went through a period of persecution before working towards and entering the mainstream of the United States.
It’s a story that’s long troubled me.
While it is true that Latter-day Saints wish to be appreciated for the best of who we are — to be seen as a light unto the nations and to be respected in a diverse world — it’s problematic to say Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, wish to be part of some cultural mainstream.
If Latter-day Saints join the “mainstream,” how can they be “set apart” or “a city on a hill?” In short, it’s really not fully possible to be part of the mainstream and be a peculiar people at the same time.
But this fundamental irony is not what really troubles me about this stock narrative. There is much in all culture — including American mainstream culture — that I love and embrace, just as my Latter-day Saint ancestors always have.
Furthermore, the concept of mainstream can be a fuzzy one, especially in a place like the United States.
Nevertheless, here’s what troubles me: Because I’ve rarely heard Latter-day Saints tell their own story this way, as a “journey to join the mainstream,” this narrative tells me much about those non Latter-day Saints who more frequently use it.
Now, stick with me for a minute, and let me try to explain my argument:
To the extent that I adopt and accept the mainstream values of my surrounding culture, my choices affirm the superiority of that so-called “mainstream” culture.
Therefore, when a writer implies that my choices have put me on a journey to some mainstream, the writer implies that what I want is what that dominant culture wants — not what my culture wants.
Take this a step further. To the extent that Latter-day Saints — and other minorities — suffer at the hands of some dominant mainstream culture through persecution and then nevertheless try to become part of that same mainstream, what of the suffering?
It is the suffering of the minority that redeems the dominant cultures’ mistakes because that same minority accepts the culture’s overlaying values. Is it too much to say the entire story of a “journey to the mainstream” is an exercise in scapegoating? Is the whole story an exercise in avoidance?
I apologize for being a little obscure, but J. Spencer Fluhman’s recent op-ed in The New York Times about anti-Mormonism made me think about how we Latter-day Saints have been scapegoated and to some extent still are. Being anti-Mormon has been a way for others to avoid looking at the weaknesses in their own cultures — at least if I read those parts of Fluhman correctly. Fascinating.
Then I thought about it a little bit more. To what extent do I scapegoat those different from me?
For example, I have a group of students looking at the news coverage of the Native Americans who live on the Ft. Hall reservation near Blackfoot, Idaho. They want to know how they have been portrayed over the years by the local news media.
It is a powerful topic because those of us living in the Snake River Plain must pass through the Ft. Hall reservation to get between Pocatello and Idaho Falls, the two biggest cities in this region, yet local journalists write little about the reservation.
What do we Idahoans know about the values and dreams of the Shoshone-Bannack people? What do we think about them? How do we perceive their culture?
Indeed, when most readers of this paper think of Native Americans, do they think of poverty? Does it register that the name Squaw Peak might offend?
I want Native Americans to succeed, and assume most readers do, but do I think of them as successful only when they achieve my measures of success?
What of my Hispanic neighbors? My African-American friends? What of those with same-sex attraction? What of evangelicals or Catholics? How do I think of them? Do I use stereotypes to diminish them?
That’s the thing with scapegoating and stereotyping. It pushes our pain onto someone else. It bullies. It avoids our own weaknesses.
But the pain, of course, always pushes back.
Maybe why I am most grateful to be a Latter-day Saint is because this religion has taught me there is really only one onto whom I can push my sins, only one whom I can pester with my pain in a way that does any good.
When I put my pain on other people as a way of avoiding my own weaknesses, I can’t change. When I look to the Savior, I must look inward first. Change happens.
And there’s been another benefit with him as my focus. When someone scapegoats me, a chance emerges to learn a little more about his suffering for me.
I don’t like anti-Mormon scapegoating to the extent it remains in this country, but let’s hope I can put it to good use by learning a little bit more about Jesus Christ in the process. And let’s hope I can stop scapegoating others, too.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.