August 8, 2011
Muslims and Mormons in America
— Martin E. Marty
“Americans Feel Warmest Toward Jews, Mainline Protestants, and Catholics” was a much-discussed headline in last year’s much-discussed American Grace, a survey-rich book on paradoxes in American religious life. The subtitle was How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Sample: non-Jewish, non-Catholic Americans, when asked toward which group “other than your own” do you feel warmest? Years ago the Jews and Catholics would have been at the front end of the “coolest” ranks. Here’s a complete turn-around.
The “coolest” and “warmest” paradoxes continue. On the American Grace temperature chart, “other Americans” feel coolest and farthest from Mormons and Muslims (forget about the tiny Buddhist presence for a moment). No surprise there. No sizable group is so hated, so much under suspicion, so mistrusted, so mistreated—am I not right?—as the Muslims. But, according to a Gallup Poll released last Tuesday, they evidently return not hatred for hatred, mistrust for mistrust. The headlines now? “Muslims Are Loyal to U.S. and Hopeful, Poll Finds” in the New York Times, and in the Chicago Tribune: “Poll: U.S. Muslims ‘Thriving’” in a hope-deficient nation.
Commentators hurried to the scene to deal with paradox and puzzlement. Wendell Marsh of Reuters: “The report noted that Muslims’ positive responses come amid attacks on their religion.” Dalia Mogahed of the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center: “Muslim Americans today feel a greater sense of belonging in their country.” The articles go on, “Only three percent of Muslim Americans said they were suffering, while 37 per cent said they are struggling.” Other polls we read would say that other Americans, heirs of those in the non-Muslim majority since the Mayflower days, who thought that they were the “belongers” now sound out about their suffering, their struggles. Paradoxically, polled American Jews have attitudes nearest those of American Muslims on “loyal” and “hopeful” questions.
The Mormons were next in the “least warm to-” ranks (again, leaving out only Buddhists.) That Mormons are politically active and poll-itically predictable gets confirmed in every survey or reporters’ observation. According to the Wall Street Journal story and others, these Latter-Day Saints are doing what they can to downplay Mormons’ involvement in political campaigns of two of their brother Saints this year. Call it “covert operations” or strategic ducking of hot topics. Call it “public relations,” at which the Mormons are good—witness their television advertisements. Call it “playing by the rules of the game” by keeping the church out of overt politicking, something many other groups are not ready to try. (And, admit it, this year’s presidential primary campaigning aside, Mormons as a church with their interest groups are overtly entangled within politics.)
Mormons worry about the stigma which showed up quietly in American Grace surveys and blatantly in many other places. Attacks on them are vicious, as they have been since founder-prophet Joseph Smith was assassinated and his successors were in constant conflict with non-Mormon Americans. Yet they also return not attack for attack but show up in surveys as super-Americans, super-patriots, and super-loyalists. They like it here. America is even on the scene in their sacred revelations.
Theologian Paul Tillich reminded readers that “para+dox” did not mean “counter to reason” but “counter to opinion.” We can learn a lot about reason and opinion from rounds like this, and might become “hopeful” about “loyalty” and “hopefulness.”
Laurie Goodstein, “Muslims Are Loyal to U.S. and Hopeful, Poll Finds,” New York Times, August 2, 2011.
Wendell Marsh, “More Muslim Americans Believe They are Thriving, Poll Says,” Chicago Tribune, August 2, 2011.
Jonathan Weisman, “Mormons Duck Political Duel,” Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2011.
Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon and Schuster, 2010).
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.