A rumor is circulating that the mormon.org PR campaign financed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was prompted by a survey revealing that Mormons are the second-least popular religious group in the United States, topping Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientologists. The only group more despised, the story goes, is Islamic extremists.
It's often the nature of rumors to be unprovable. Given that this survey was supposedly funded by the Mormon church itself, it's unlikely that a church spokesperson will confirm either its existence or its results.
But it's also often the nature of rumors to be plausible, and while I haven't personally ranked the popularity or lack thereof of churches in the U.S., it's obvious that Mormons have an image problem. In my last column, I listed several reasons why people think poorly of the LDS church. The list generated considerable enthusiasm among self-identified LDS who want to see the church renounce some of its less popular positions, including its abhorrence of gay marriage and its ridiculous and paranoid assertion that the sexual mores of people outside the church pose a serious threat to the spirituality or salvation of people inside it. (Seriously: if your relationship with God is threatened by what your neighbors do in the privacy of their bedrooms or the way they construct their families, it's not much of a relationship.)
The list, along with a discussion of correlation, the church's program to create and enforce uniformity throughout the church, also provoked indignation among faithful Mormons who defended the church on several fronts. One was that correlation was not the bugbear I described it as -- after all, since correlation took hold in the 1970s, the church had extended the priesthood to black men, and begun allowing women to do things like pray in sacrament meetings.
But those changes corresponded with major changes in society at large, and the church was late, not early, in making gestures toward racial and gender equality. And the limits of correlation can be seen in what remains uncorrelated, including polygamy.
The church officially renounced the practice of polygamy in 1890, a necessary condition for Utah's becoming a state. But it remains a central doctrine of the church. Men can have multiple women sealed to them in the temple, meaning that the marriages -- all of them -- will exist after death. Women, however, can be sealed to one man only. But that's what members know -- not what the church tells outsiders. The 1995 proclamation on the family announces that "marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God" and emphasizes the duties of "husband and wife," in the singular. There's no hint of the doctrinal reality that polygamy is still justified in Mormon scripture. (See Doctrine and Covenants Section 132.)
If the church were truly interested in doctrinal coherence instead of behavioral conformity, it would do something about polygamy. Given its current emphasis on traditional heterosexual marriage, the logical thing would be to renounce not just the practice but the doctrine of polygamy. But that would require an admission that polygamy was not divinely decreed, that Joseph Smith was either deceived or deceptive when he claimed it was. And the church isn't willing to impeach the character of Joseph Smith in any way.
Another defense Mormons offered for their church is that it does good works -- it provides humanitarian aid, scholarships, education, etc. -- and so does not deserve overall censure and condemnation.
It is true that the LDS church quietly goes about dispensing significant aid to people in distress around the world. Church leaders provide admirable, religious rationale for why they do not seek attention for these efforts. This is an instance where LDS leaders set an example that members should follow.
LDS leaders also provide a rationale for why their good works cannot and should not compensate for harm the church does. The LDS church excels at formulating and advancing all-or-nothing propositions. David O. McKay, president of the church from 1951 to 1970, famously declared, "No success can compensate for failure in the home." In a 2007 interview, Gorgon B. Hinckley, then president of the church, said, "Well, it's either true or false. If it's false, we're engaged in a great fraud. If it's true, it's the most important thing in the world. Now, that's the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true."
What is one to make of this "it's either true or false" dichotomy when even so orthodox a publication as The Daily Universe, official newspaper at Brigham Young University, publishes an op-ed discussing the recent decision overturning California's Proposition 8 and noting that
The arguments put forth so aggressively by the Protect Marriage coalition and by LDS church leaders at all levels of church organization during the campaign were noticeably absent from the proceedings of the trial. This discrepancy between the arguments in favor of Proposition 8 presented to voters and the arguments presented in court shows that at some point, proponents of Prop 8 stopped believing in their purported rational and non-religious arguments for the amendment.
Or perhaps Prop 8 proponents never believed their arguments in the first place, but assumed voters would. This conjecture is supported by the essay's assessment of the "real reason" Mormons supported Prop 8: "a man who most of us believe is a prophet of God told us to." (Note: the op-ed was hastily removed from the Daily Universe website, as anyone could have predicted. But you can find the editorial on page three of the print version, posted as a .pdf here. You can also find a discussion of the essay's publication and withdrawal, along with an even stronger version of the letter originally submitted to The Daily Universe, here.)
Latter-day Saints would do well to recognize that no good works can compensate for a systematic, dishonest assault on the civil rights of others. It's a formulation they can understand, so the message should be clear. Helping others is a human duty, not a fix for a bad image. A commitment to aiding the less fortunate among us is simply part of what the LDS church must do to be a credible religious organization. And as long as the leaders of the Mormon church exploit its resources -- including its members, their time and their money -- for the tearing down of the civil rights of others, the fact that Mormons act like compassionate Christians in important ways won't mitigate the fact that there are important ways in which they don't.