It’s noon. You’re a good college student, so you’ve been up for an hour. You haven’t eaten, so you decide being late to class probably won’t kick start the end of the world, and you stop. You go in, place your order, and wait. It’s awkwardly silent, so you exchange some small talk with the cashier. Then it happens, you make some comment about your religion professor or having a big family; maybe she notices the CTR ring on your finger or a slight protrusion of white fabric from beneath your collar.
“Oh.” she says. “You’re a Mormon.”
“Yep.” You answer as your food comes out. Instinct kicks in. Your reach into your pocket and pull out the pass-along card that, of course, you always carry with you. You give it to her and tell her to check it out. Then you leave.
You walk to class, and you’re barely on time. Great morning, right? Sort of. Right then you’re reminiscing about the good old days on a mission, or the 5th Sunday lesson that your bishop gave last week, or that really great experience you had once, or how proud Elder Ballard would be that you shared the gospel. Meanwhile, your cashier buddy is throwing the pass-along card in the trash and wondering how anyone who worships Satan can smile so much.
Wait. What happened? Why didn’t she pick up on your telepathic vibes about how great Mormonism is? Well, while you were taking the Sunday notes that you keep in your backpack, she was at church too. In fact, she’s been there every week since her grandma started taking her when she was three. She’s heard a few pastors during those years, but none of them had anything good to say about Mormons. She’s secretly terrified. That’s why she hides every time missionaries knock on her door and doesn’t keep in touch with her high school friends that invited her to their ward.
She doesn’t know that Mormon was a person, let alone one that wants to “cry….from the dust” at her (Book of Mormon. Mormon. 8.23). She’s clueless when it comes to knowing that the nickname comes from a book of scripture that promotes morality, integrity, and kindness. Unfortunately, she wasn’t in your Sunday School or Church History class where you learned all about how Emma Smith and Sidney Rigdon bolted and started their own things. She has no idea what “reorganized” or “fundamentalist” mean in that context. (That being said, she doesn’t know that the reorganized portion no longer exists.) If anything, she might remember a few paragraphs from an outdated history book she had in junior high that talked about the Mormons going to Utah.
So how does she know that you’re not a polygamist, a homophobe, a Satanist, a con artist, or some sort of scientifically impossible horned creature? She doesn’t. She hasn’t felt what you felt at girls’ camp, or on a mission, or in a quorum/auxiliary. When the word “Mormon” comes up, she can’t access some superior data storage and overrule everything she’s experienced. (At least not yet.) Instead, she digs into that grand memory bank that we call the human psyche, puts two and two together, and starts to think that Governor Boggs was on to something.
That’s a problem. How do we fix it? You put the word through rehab right? Just go case by case and set things right. Do some service. Get out into the community. Once everyone gets to know that you don’t have problems, it’ll be fine. That’s worked great for Miley Cyrus. Maybe the only better success story is the past 120 years of convincing the world’s populous that Mormon does not mean polygamist.
People are funny. Even those of us that hate memorizing vocabulary with a bloody passion are constantly defining things subconsciously. A laceration equals pain. We’ve all had that fun experience. After we get those definitions we don’t wait around to prove them true or false at every opportunity; we make preemptive assumptions. Because physical contact with sharp things brings lacerations and lacerations bring pain, we go out of our way to avoid physical contact with sharp things. In a situation that involves less bodily fluids, if I say “Germany in 1941”, what comes to mind? Oppression? Murder? Did your thoughts all boil down to the word “Nazi”? Almost anyone who hears the word “Nazi” automatically associates negative assumptions with whomever that word is describing, including the 88% of Germany’s population that was not affiliated with the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Senery, “Giving Germany back its past”; “Germany”). We just don’t give any alternative the time of day. We may hear statistics and explanations, but those are met with skepticism, if they’re met at all. With that in mind, is it really a question why people don’t like Mormons after hearing how underprivileged Mormon women feel or how discriminatory Mormons are toward homosexuals?
Sometimes the only thing to do to get rid of a problem is to get rid of the source of the problem. Genius, right? If the dominant definition of “Mormon” is polygamy, homophobia, sexism, or whatever, then why claim the term? There’s obviously a link between the nickname “Mormon” and the Church that won’t go away, but it doesn’t have to go away. The world doesn’t need to stop using the word “Mormon”, we, Mormons, need to stop using the word “Mormon.” We need to stop psychologically admitting to be something that we are not to every misinformed subconscious within earshot.
Stigma is a stubborn problem. It doesn’t go away easily. Sometimes unique means have to be employed to beat the problem, like a sarcastic and somewhat arrogant opinion editorial that uses the word it’s arguing against and stereotypes its readers to illustrate how irritating it can be to be dubbed something, possibly derogatory, that they’re not. Think of it as a way of avoiding the initial shock and quick judgments. Misconceptions can be fixed, but only if the hearer is listening at a level above that of someone in a coma. Throwing out the nickname throws out assumptions. It’s a clean slate. If onlookers choose to dislike Latter-Day Saints after they’ve learned what it’s about, that’s ok. What’s not ok is disliking anything for what it isn’t.
Where we stand now is a paradox. Countless people are too closed off or afraid to learn what the Church is about, and they can’t lay their fears to rest without doing just that. The Church is a sheep in wolf’s clothing, unintentionally bearing an appearance that keeps onlookers from discovering the truth. It’s up to members to help humanity see through the guise placed on us by scorners and critics. It’s on Mormons to quit being “Mormons”.
Germany.” country-data, n.p, n.d. Web. 23 January 2015
Sereny, Gitta “Giving Germany back its past.” The Independent. n.p. 16 May 1994. 23 Jan. 2015.
The Book of Mormon