Traitor Aversion and Mormonism

A recent Pew Research Center poll reported that Americans tend to view members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints more negatively than they view Catholics, Jews, evangelicals, atheists, and Muslims. It seems odd that a religion born and raised in the United States should be so distrusted by Americans.

While I was thinking about it, I remembered that BYU allows non-LDS students into the university and grants them degrees, but when someone is admitted as LDS and then leaves the Church while a student, BYU retains the right to eject them from the university without any recourse or the possibility of a degree. And it often does so.

Why does BYU do this? I think it’s because of what I’ll call traitor aversion. Many cultures consider someone who has left to be more dangerous or repugnant than someone who has never been part of the culture. Because someone who leaves is deliberately rejecting the group and its ways, it’s a deeper injury than an outsider dismissing or attacking the group. I think such groups also feel that if leavers are so disillusioned, they are more likely to attack the group—and they have inside tools they can do it with, making them more dangerous than an outsider.

Looking back, I think something similar happened between Mormonism and the United States.

Yes, our religion was born in the United States, but then we chose to leave it. And not just leave it but build our own kingdom. Along the way, we rejected many of the United States’ most basic social structures: monogamy (we practiced polygamy), capitalism (we used a communitarian structure), free flow of information (information ran through the LDS hierarchy), and wide social connection (Mormons were encouraged to not trade or intermarry with outsiders—though of course, we were also encouraged to convert outsiders to Mormonism. But that was the thing, Mormons only took you seriously if you were Mormon.).

So, we rejected not only the United States, but many of its most foundational structures. I think we took on a goodly dose of traitor aversion in America’s eyes at that point.

Now, I don’t think that most Americans remember that history. I don’t even think most Mormons remember that history. But its effect has hung onto our outlook and behavior. Mormon programming has the outward appearance of Christian American programming, but it’s just different enough. And people can feel that. Sometimes it’s intriguing. Sometimes it’s off-putting. But it’s always niggling.

As John Gardner writes in his novel Mickelsson’s Ghosts, Mormons are “clubby. . . . There’s something unnatural about people all hanging together like that. The Baptists, now, they may be mean . . . , but there’s no way they’re ever gonna take over the world. . . . But the Mormons, now—”

And you have to admit, we are kind of trying take over the world. And we do proudly call ourselves a “peculiar people.”

But, from what I’ve seen, LDS Church leadership is making deliberate strides away from our peculiar roots and toward becoming a flavor of Christianity (see this podcast episode). It will be interesting to see how much movement we make toward shedding our peculiarity and traitor aversion over the next few decades.