Ferraro, Obama, and Mormonism

My last post, which dealt with misunderstandings about Mormons, made me think back to an article written after Gerarldine Ferraro commented that Obama was “lucky to be who he is” and that the country was “caught up in the concept.”

In a Newsweek/Washington Post article (“You’re Wrong, Ms. Ferraro”), Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite leaned toward judging that Geraldine Ferraro’s comments about Senator Obama represented the sin of “willful ignorance” rather than simple lack of historical understanding. She strongly argued that we need to honestly look at our nation’s history to overcome a “national case of ‘willful ignorance.'” When I read her passionate argument that Ferraro should extend her vision beyond women’s issues to include African-American issues, that caused me to wonder whether Rev. Thistelthwaite had also weighed in on the Mormon question during this year’s presidential contest.

I found that she had addressed the issue (“Mainstreaming the Mormons”) but discovered statements in the article that leave historically inaccurate impressions of Mormons. One such inaccuracy was the statement:

‘Plural marriage’ is still practiced by the more ‘fundamentalist’ segment of the Mormon church.

Plural marriage is, in fact, practiced by offshoots of the Mormon church – churches which have a membership and leadership completely separate from the Mormon church. For many years, the Mormon church itself has had a practice of removing from membership anyone who has more than one spouse.

A second misleading statement in the article is contained in the assertion quoted from Gloria Steinem:

If the Mormons had supported the [Equal Rights Amendment], it would have passed. They were enormously powerful in opposing it because there are certain key state legislatures which they control.”

A claim as bold as this, even if merely being quoted, should be accompanied by data to allow the reader to judge the accuracy of the claim. Let’s look at the data. In 1979, the deadline year for ratifying the ERA, Mormons represented more than 10% of the population in only two states, Utah and Idaho. Short of resorting to a conspiracy theory, it would be quite a stretch to claim that Mormons controlled any state legislature outside of those two states. The ERA fell eight states short of being ratified. It is, therefore, a historical fantasy to claim that the Mormons could have single-handedly tipped the balance. On the other hand, the largest territory in a map of ERA holdouts was the Southern US. The majority of the twenty states that rejected the ERA are located in the South, representing more than enough states to close the gap needed for ratification. It would be more historically accurate to claim that the Bible Belt, rather than the Mormons, held the balance of power in ERA ratification.

A third misleading statement in the article was the claim that:

For American culture as a whole, the advent of the women’s movement along with the freedom the pill gave women to plan their reproductive lives, was socially disconcerting. For the Mormons it was a direct threat to their core value of family.

Let’s evaluate the simplistic impression left by this statement that Mormons felt threatened by the women’s movement and birth control. First, it is instructive to note that the first woman who was elected as a state senator in the United States was Martha Hughes Cannon, a Mormon physician who earned her M.D. degree in 1880. Regarding birth control, let’s turn back again to 1979 and a quotation from an article in the Ensign, an official magazine published by the Mormon church:

If for certain personal reasons a couple prayerfully decides that having another child immediately is unwise, the method of spacing children – discounting possible medical or physical effects – makes little difference.

This statement followed a tradition of leaving reproductive decisions to the discretion of the married couple and doesn’t seem to square very well with the notion of a religion threatened by birth control.

Hopefully, the above review provides the reader an improved basis for making informed judgments regarding some of the claims in Rev. Thistlethwaite’s article. However, this discussion does not in any way detract from the need Thistlethwaite expressed for Americans to learn from our collective history in order to help combat oppression and, I would add, to help combat all the offspring of prejudice. Unfortunately, anti-Mormon prejudice was one of the forms of prejudice evident in the current election cycle. One website still features the headline “Vote for Romney is Vote for Satan,” while Mike Huckabee’s official website carried for over 3 months a blog entry stating that Evangelicals must not allow “Mormon garbage” to be elected. Though I felt it was important to correct some of the inaccuracies in Rev. Thistlethwaite’s article, I believe that her prescription for increased historical and cultural knowledge could be quite salutary, whether we’re talking about knowledge related to African-Americans or women or even Mormons.