Marrying into a Mormon family last year, my father-in-law explained his church to me over the holidays. It was interesting and I learned many new things.
“People think we’re weird,” he later said. He had a point.
Until now, I haven’t known many Mormons. Only two went to my high school. Boys leave home for two years? Aren’t they all polygamists? Mitt Romney doesn’t drink coffee?
For many Americans, there’s a cultural distance there.
Friday, a Salt Lake Tribune headline read, “Poll: Americans rank Muslims as least deserving of religious protections, put Mormons behind other Christians.”
“Solid majorities said it was extremely or very important for the U.S. to uphold religious freedom in general,” the Tribune reported. “However, the percentages varied dramatically when respondents were asked about specific faith traditions, according to a poll by The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.”
“Eighty-two percent said religious-liberty protections were important for Christians, compared with 61 percent who said the same for Muslims. About seven in 10 said preserving Jews’ religious freedom was important, while 67 percent said so of Mormons.”
So religious liberty is important, but less important if you’re Muslim or Mormon, in that order.
After the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks last year, Muslims came under scrutiny. Donald Trump wanted to shut down mosques. Marco Rubio said we should shut down anywhere Muslims gather and radicals are “inspired.”
Polls showed many voters agreed with these restrictions. A Trump spokesperson defended her boss’s proposal by saying, “it’s not different than a Mormon church.” Many assumed she was citing the late 19th century when American presidents implemented harsh anti-Mormon policies.
So according to the Trump camp, we can restrict Muslims’ religious liberties because we once restricted Mormons’?
The 19th and 21st centuries might not be as far apart as we think.
Many Americans don’t understand Mormons, as my father-in-law noted. This is even truer of Muslim Americans, as at least one poll reflects.
The Mormons I’ve come to know are some of the most decent folks you’ll meet. The same is true of the few Muslims I know. Both groups exhibit conservative traits and values not unlike the evangelical South where I grew up.
But too many Americans simply don’t know very many Mormons and even less Muslims. Outside the Southeast, many probably harbor certain prejudices or distrust toward evangelicals. Mormons and evangelicals (and Muslims, for that matter) also have suspicions about each other.
It’s all distance.
It’s the same distance that is common concerning attitudes toward immigrants, who often suffer needlessly until the larger population gets to know them. A century ago it was the Irish and Italians who were considered worrisome. Today, it’s often Hispanics who are targeted or scapegoated.
But over time, people who come to our country to become a part of the American Dream eventually get to know other Americans, to everyone’s benefit.
Many have been hesitant to accept gay Americans, particularly as equals under the law. Today, a majority supports same sex marriage, but that only came with the larger population getting to know gay friends and family members, who would’ve remained closeted decades prior.
As African Americans are outraged over the police shootings of black youths like Tamir Rice and others, white Americans whose day-to-day experiences are distant from black communities are less outraged and less understanding. Black Americans are saying, loudly, they don’t feel as if they have equal rights or protection. It’s easier for whites and others to dismiss or reject their concerns if it doesn’t touch their own lives.
Right now, transgender Americans are probably the least understood in our society. The suicide rate among transgender men and women is astronomical compared to other groups. Still, you will hear jokes about Caitlyn Jenner in the same way you would have heard gay jokes years ago, or black jokes years before that.
These jokes became less acceptable because our society became more accepting of homosexuals and minorities. In time, hopefully and for their sake, transgender Americans will be more accepted too.
But again, it’s that distance—that people so different from us, or that we perceive as different from us, should not be afforded the same rights, protections, or even basic respect or human dignity, as “us.”
It’s when we begin to see others from different backgrounds as being more like us that prejudice and callousness fades. Understanding grows.
While most Americans still value religious liberty, it is bothersome that many appear to value it less for the groups they understand the least. Muslims and Mormons are no more deserving of being deprived of liberties than other minority groups were in decades past.
Mormons are “weird.” So are Muslims. So are evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, gays, blacks, Hispanics, transgender and every other category of human beings.
Everyone’s weird from a distance. They look more like Americans, close up.
Love thy neighbor. Know thy neighbor. Shorten distances.