The New York Times ran a column in this weekend’s Sunday Review by John G. Turner arguing that Mormons need to make a “fuller confrontation” with their church’s history of racism.
It’s an important question, but one has to wonder at the usefulness of raising it in the Times—not exactly a paper with a primarily Mormon staff or readership. Turner, we are told, is an assistant professor at George Mason University, but whether or not he is a member of the church he sets out to criticize goes unstated, and that is precisely the problem. It is one thing to tell your own mother she should stop smoking and quite another thing to tell someone else’s.
Even if one’s desire is to offer loyal criticism of one’s own faith, a paper whose motives are likely to be far less sympathetic is perhaps not the best place to do it.
As BYU religion historian Spencer Fluhman wrote in another Times column, too often we congratulate ourselves on our own enlightenment by drawing attention to the failings of others:
The Broadway hit “The Book of Mormon” lampoons the religion’s naïveté on racial issues, which is striking given that the most biting criticisms have focused on the show’s representations of Africans and blackness.
As a Mormon and a scholar of religious history, I am unsurprised by the juxtaposition of Mormon mocking and racial insensitivity. Anti-Mormonism has long masked America’s contradictions and soothed American self-doubt. In the 19th century, antagonists charged that Mormon men were tyrannical patriarchs, that Mormon women were virtual slaves and that Mormons diabolically blurred church and state. These accusations all contained some truth, though the selfsame accusers denied women the vote, bolstered racist patriarchy and enthroned mainstream Protestantism as something of a state religion. [ . . . ]
Making Mormons look bad helps others feel good. By imagining Mormons as intolerant rubes, or as heretical deviants, Americans from left and right can imagine they are, by contrast, tolerant, rational and truly Christian.
It’s easy, isn’t it? Draw attention to the shortcomings of Mormons (or Muslims, or Catholics, or Evangelicals, or even New Atheists) in order to feel better about one’s own. Even if Turner is himself a Mormon, his article does little more than flatter the vanity of the Times‘s readers. Given the importance of his topic, that’s a shame.