“Whenever or wherever a Latter-day Saint is mentioned in a news story,” observed Mormon church First Presidency member N. Eldon Tanner in 1981, “whether it be for appointment to high government office or for lawbreaking — the ‘Mormon’ connection is usually mentioned. Other denominations rarely receive that distinction.”
If that was true at the time, these days news reports of wrongdoing by members of “other denominations” are not unusual. But here in Utah, to Tanner’s point, Mormon leaders caught with a hand in the naughty jar often command more column inches and generate more gossip than other religious leaders caught in like circumstances. What’s up with that?
A low-hanging explanation is to be found in the pervasiveness and influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormon” hereafter, begging indulgence) in Utah. But another explanation may be found in the way the church presents itself and its members. Consider this not-unusual message delivered by late church President Thomas S. Monson during the church’s 2015 semiannual General Conference:
“As the world moves further and further away from the principles and guidelines given to us by a loving Heavenly Father, we will stand out from the crowd because we are different. We will stand out because we dress modestly. We will be different because we do not use profanity and because we do not partake of substances which are harmful to our bodies. We will be different because we avoid off-color humor and degrading remarks. We will be different as we decide not to fill our minds with media choices that are base and demeaning and that will remove the Spirit from our homes and our lives. We will certainly stand out as we make choices regarding morality — choices which adhere to gospel principles and standards. Those things which make us different from most of the world also provide us with that light and that spirit which will shine in an increasingly dark world.”
To Mormons, words like Monson’s can inspire, motivate and validate. But one can hardly blame non-Mormons should they happen to infer an underlying, “We’re better than you.”
A number of recurring messages from church leaders to the Mormon faithful only reinforce the impression: The Mormon church is the one, the only, true church. Expect people to be impressed by your high standards. Don’t associate with people with lower standards. You must set a good example for non-Mormons. Non-Mormons aren’t truly happy. People leave the church because they’re offended, deceived, or sinful. Many people will not join the church because the Mormon way of life is too difficult for them.
Where Mormons are the dominant demographic, the sentiment sometimes finds its way into action. Many Utah Mormons do not associate with non-Mormons. Many forbid their children to play with non-Mormon children. Many newly arrived non-Mormons often find their Mormon neighbors’ interest in them abates once it’s clear they’re not interested in converting.
To be sure, not all and perhaps not even most Mormons engage in such behaviors. Plenty of Mormons don’t consider themselves superior. Plenty make great friends and neighbors. Indeed, like anyone, Mormons exist everywhere along the Likable to Not-So-Likable Continuum.
Which is one reason that “We’re better than you” waxes tiresome. The problem lies not in a church that urges its members to greater heights. It lies in rhetoric suggesting that church members have attained those heights — while the rest of us look on with admiration from our increasingly dark world.
Remarks like Monson’s aren’t beyond saving. At the risk of presuming to edit a prophet, I offer this modest rewrite:
“I plead with you to be strong. Dress modestly. Avoid profanity, harmful substances, off-color humor, degrading remarks, and all that is base and demeaning. Seek to have the Spirit in your homes and lives. But, please, remember that the goal isn’t to be better than or to impress others. It is to be our best selves.”
An attitude-tweak could effect a change in rhetoric and, in turn, in behavior. Until then, expect non-Mormons to let fly the occasional schadenfreude-indulging Aha! whenever a Mormon is caught being just as human as anyone else.
Steve Cuno is the author of “Behind the Mormon Curtain: Selling Sex in America’s Holy City,” from which this article is adapted and which examines prostitution in Utah. He is also the as-told-to author of Joanne Hanks’ popular memoir, “It’s Not About the Sex My Ass: Confessions of an Ex-Mormon, Ex-Polygamist, Ex-Wife.”