The other day we were having a discussion at dinner about the atonement I criticised part of what I thought was a erroneous interpretation of scripture. The result of this was that I was told to ‘stop reading anti-mormon literature.’ This statement I found highly offensive, as it assumed that because I disagreed with the person, it meant that I was reading anti-mormon literature (which ironically was just a General Conference talk which I had simply thought about). This was nothing less then an underhand ad hominem attack on me. However, this lead me to think about what exactly is anti-mormon, and why is this term deployed in debates, and discussions. This post then is an attempt to understand this term that is used a lot. I shall first look at the term anti-mormon and its relation to mormonism. This shall be followed by a look at the rhetorical function that this word has, and the loaded connotations that it carries with it. Finally, I shall consider its role as in ad hominem debates, and why it should be an alarm signal to us all about underhand tactics of debate, and a lack of intellectual integrity as it is simply attacking the person rather then the arguement.
The Etymology of ‘anti-mormon’
Like many labels anti-mormon has an amorpheous meaning that is not very stable. It was forged in a derogatory context, yet it did not have negative associations when it was first used but was in fact a positive term for those who opposed mormons, ironically in contrast the term mormon in the text was portrayed as a negative term. It appears first in The Daily Herald of Louisianna, Kentucky, and here it is in a book that attacks The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints hence the label anti-mormon. At the outset then the term is used proudly and is political charged as a self-designation, yet its history would latter consign it to a derogatory and uncomplimentary phrase. The fact that it appears in contrast to mormon means we can see then that anti-mormon depends upon Mormon for its meaning, that it is the dicotomy between the two concepts that gives anti-mormon its meaning. For without mormon, anti-mormon would have nothing to oppose and would be a meaningless phrase such as anti-goglohumps. In order then to understand the term anti-mormon we need to understand what exactly it is in opposition to. This means then an investigation of what a mormon is. Generally nowadays, Anti-mormon, is used to refer to anything critical of the institution, beliefs or members of the church. This broad meaning shall be useful as we consider the diverse ways we can conceive of anti-mormon.
What is a Mormon?
The first point of call to understand what a mormon is, would be the official website of the church of jesus christ of latter-day saints. In its article on Mormons it distinguishes between three ways in which Mormon is used. Firstly, it claims that Mormons are those who are members of its church, this is mormon as in the people. The second, is that it refers to the Mormon Church, which it says should more accurately be called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The third distinction that it makes is to Mormon the prophet. Mormon is a character that appears in the book of Mormon, and is the prophet-historian that the book of Mormon states is the chief compiler of its record. This makes mormon an exclusive term to the Church (I should point out that when I refer to the church it is the LDS church, other churches will be distinguished) it is a phrase that they are claiming for their own. I shall use this definition as a spring board then to consider more broadly, the problems with trying to define mormonism and connect it to the term anti-mormon, to show that far more could be called anti-mormon then we think.
Let us consider the idea that Mormon is a reference to the people of the Church. This is problematic, as what level of activity do they need to have. Is it simply those who have a high-level of activity and involvement within the institution that we consider, and do we consider members through all the history of the church? How do you decide on how Mormon they are, is it on the basis of what they believe, their church attendance, or their conformity to cultural norms? It seems that everyone who is a member, even if they are not active but remain on the church records are justifiably considered Mormon. This then means that Mormon is more a cultural identity then a doctrinal community. If it is not by the level of religiousity that makes a mormon, it must be a cultural association that makes one a Mormon. This makes for a very broad nebulus of meaning and forms of Mormon, as it means those who are born into a mormon family, but never go to church are Mormon, it would also encapsulate those who have chosen not to attend church, those who are excommunicated, controversial feminists, liberals, and homosexuals are all Mormon. It also covers alternative groups such as fundamental mormons, and splinter groups such as the reorganised church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints, polygamous fundamentalists and even those who have left the church. If each of them can call themselves legitimately Mormon on cultural level, then how then do you determine what is anti-mormon? If we broadly catagorise these difficulties in the following manner, that mormon the people can be broken down into those who adhere to a certain doctrine or belief, those who are part of the mormon culture, those who are baptised members of the church, those who call themselves mormon.
If we take a cultural meaning of mormon this means that anything that opposes the culture that is created around the church from utah would be classed anti-mormon. This would leave many non-us members of the church guilty of anti-mormon sentiment if they oppose the americanisation that seeps into the church. This then would make many active members of the church anti-mormon to some extent. In fact members of the church can be found to be anti-mormon in many ways. Let us consider the fact that fundamental groups can justifiably call themselves mormon, as they believe in the Book of Mormon. These are groups who often still practice polygamy. If they this group are what Mormon is, then anything that opposes this would be anti-mormon. This would make this general conference talk by President Gordon B. Hinckley anti-mormon as it opposes the practice of polygamy and is against this definition of Mormonism. It would also make part of the LDS standard works anti-mormon, as the Manifesto by Willford Woodruff clearly opposes and attacks the practice of polygamy, which this group practice, but it would also be anti-mormon for many members. For the first 90 years of the churches history being mormon meant practicing polygamy, and now they would all be classed anti-mormon on the basis of President Hinckley’s talk. From their perspective if we now have documents that oppose that and are critical of the practice of polygamy, then that is anti-mormon.
This raises a further issue of defining mormon, and at what moment in history do we take to define what mormon is. If we take mormon to refer to a set of beliefs or doctrines, at what point, and by what group do you use to judge it? If we base it on the beliefs of Brigham Young as being the core of what a mormon is then we face the problem, that anything post-1978 that promotes the giving of the priesthood to all worthy males would be classed as anti-mormon, as it is against the teachings of the teachings of Brigham Young, and many of the church leaders such as Bruce R. Mcconkie. This means that a lot of general conferences and church articles are critical and oppose the beliefs, and hence could be classed and seen as anti-mormon. If on the other hand we take a modern stance to define what mormon is, then it means a great chunk of our history is not-mormon and anything in favour of it hence becomes anti-mormon literature as it is against the modern viewpoint. It means that we end up having to class Bruce R Mcconkie again as a propagator of anti-mormon literature, as a lot of what he taught was against what the modern stance is. The fact that the church has never had static set of beliefs, but has been changing and adapting throughout all of its history means that it is impossible to define mormonism in a way that doesn’t make part of its history anti-mormon.
Further, if we take the definition given by the church that mormon is the church, or institution, then it means anything that is critical or in opposistion to the the church would be classfied as anti-mormon. We can find many examples of this published wthin the official publications of the church, such as this talk by Elder Poelman about how the church is not needed, and can at times compete with the family. The apologist Jeffrey Lindsey tried to also define it as being ‘only the activists who attack the Church in a way intended to generate misunderstanding, fear, and shock … [someone who] strives to stir up anger toward the Church and relies on misinformation or half-truths.’ Anti-mormons are then only the activists that oppose the church and use misinformation and half-truths. However, again this leaves many inside the church as anti-mormon, for instance when the church changes doctrine or policy the result is that the modern church opposes the old church and uses misinformation and half-truths to generate misunderstanding. Whilst the motives are not the same, they are still making statements that are in opposition to one of the many definitions of Mormon. Lindsay however makes the claim that the title of anti-mormon should only be used in reference to those who are extreme and highly active in their opposition, and this is what distinguishes critical from anti-mormon. But this does not remove the issue of what it is that they are working against. If we take mormon as a cultural member of a loose and diverse spectrum of people linked with the LDS church and book of mormon this would in fact make highly active members of the church anti-mormon who oppose and fight against fringe members, who are liberal intellectual, not as active but nevertheless class themselves as mormon.
If we take the definition of Mormon as being those who adhere to the the beliefs of the church we also encounter numeous problems with using the term anti-mormon. If we say it is those who believe in the doctrines established by Joseph Smith we find this leaves many who no longer still preach the same doctrine as anti-mormon. But on a bigger level, the church is not homogenous place, people do not all believe the same, there is a diversity of belief within the church. If we take Mormon as a group united or as the church but not the beliefs we would have to define anti-mormon as anything that tried to persuade people to change their views, and this would make the correlation committee which attempts to keep harmony as either being the litmus test of mormon or anti-mormon. If it is the standard of mormon, then it makes many in the church anti-mormon as they are in opposition and the commitee are trying to convince them of their error. If we take a cultural definition, then the committee is anti-mormon as it is attacking them and trying to convince them that what they are is not true mormons.
On the other hand it could be argued that this is a very broad understanding of anti-mormon and very loose. This is a valid point, the fact that I have kept it to simply being the opposite of Mormon means that it covers many groups, but that is precisely the difficulty and the point. The fact that Mormon is so unspecific, broad and flexible means that the antitheis is just as amorpheous. Indeed anything that claims to be mormon is at the same time anti-mormon. This is because they are so many ways to think about what a mormon is that in saying ‘this is what a mormon is’ it is automatically a statement against another group who call or are called Mormon. This opposition makes it to some extent anti-mormon as it says that many of those who consider themselves mormon are not really Mormon, and is against their views. The difficulty in providing a fixed and static definition of mormon makes it almost impossible to provide a definition of anti-mormon which is really robust.
Why call someone or something anti-mormon?
The fact that the term is so amorphous and has no fixed meaning, and does in fact refer to many other things make it very useful for rhetorical purposes. This is because it is a very loaded word full of connotations that are negative and purgative. By labeling something as anti-mormon it is nothing less then an attack on the character of the author or article. This amounts to an ad hominum arguement. This in short is the rhetorical device of instead of engaging in the argument undermining the opposition through personal attacks. It would question the authority of the writer, ie. you can not trust the views of X because he is a marxist, or they are biased, or want to prove us wrong because they are evil. This was a tactic that is often deployed by mormon apologists who use the attack on academic integrity to dismiss the claim, well they are unscholarly, or they don’t consider all the evidence, it was a tool particularly favoured by Hugh Nibley. This is very useful in a mormon discourse, because the term anti-mormon has many connotations to satan and his attack of the church. It in essence makes the person called anti-mormon decieved by satan, and a diabolical opponent to truth. This connotation is dangerous, as I have attempted to show, there are many that could fall under the definition of being labeled anti-mormon, which if this discourse of anti-mormon as being part of a demonic battle against God’s one true church then we end up having to say that some of the leaders within the church are part of this plot but we don’t want to say that the former-presidents of the church are satanic.
This idea of it being satanic not only undermines the views of the writer, but it legitimisises intellectual laziness. By labeling it as part of some satanic scheme, it gives a valid reason not to engage in it, in any meaningful way. Instead of entering into a genuine intellectual discussion it resorts to petty name calling to avoid discussing the issue. This should then be an alarm signal to dishonesty and a lack of integrity. If people are willing to dismiss and label people in such a negative way, then it suggests that they are unwilling to enter into a meaningful discussion, as it is being used to simply dismiss anything that disagrees with them. Seeing as there are so many ways to define mormon, anti-mormon simply becomes a tool to use against anyone who disagrees with you. Instead of coming up with a valid argument as to why they who disagree with you are wrong, you simply say well ‘they are anti-mormon’ as if that solves the issue raised by them. This lack of critical thinking results in a closed minded attitude that hinders growth and progression. How can one progress if one is unwilling to change, and the ability to change requires an open mind and an ability to enter into a dialogue of critical thinking, if no one ever questioned then no one would ever make any progress.
By my definition of mormon, anyone who is opposed to free thinking, to look at all claims and discuss them to find the truth, who want to progress in their understanding of God and the gospel would be classed as anti-mormon, thus ironically the very people who call others, and me anti-mormon under my interpretation could be called anti-mormons. However, I know that at the same time that also makes me both Mormon and anti-mormon at the same time. Let us move then away from a discourse that attaches a stigma to people who disagree with us, and instead enter into a meaningful religious conversation, where all views are taken with equal merit. A failure to do so simply reflects a lack of confidence in our own foundation of faith. Let us instead of calling someone anti-mormon and putting our head in the sand to avoid the issue, bravely and courageously consider them with respect and consideration, and let us not simply insult those who do not think the same as us about what a Mormon is.