Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are a peculiar people. They have been since their founding in 1830. Their peculiarity brought them a great deal of attention in nineteenth century America, and “anti-mormon” attitudes encouraged the violent persecution of members of the church for practicing their faith. Though many members today do not face the same kind of threat to their lives, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Latter-day Saints for short) across the globe face a different kind of “anti-mormon” sentiment. As a Latter-day Saint, I was excited to come to Wellesley, eager to escape the verbal persecution I experienced in high school in the hopes of finding a place where my diverse religious identity was valued. What I found was a college that was committed to respecting diverse identities in theory, but proved inconsistent in practice.
It is stated in Wellesley College’s missions and values that, “there is no greater benefit to one’s intellectual and social development … than the forthright engagement with, and exploration of unfamiliar viewpoints and experiences.”As a campus, we are very good at engaging with certain kinds of viewpoints, experiences and identities, but are much less willing to confront other types. Though I have never experienced it myself, I have — through the grapevine — heard of professors reducing the history of my faith to a prophet that joined upstate New Yorkers in digging for Native American gold in the mountains and founded a church on the gold book he found or founded a church so he could have multiple wives. Students who are members of the church at Wellesley (known as the Latter-day Saint Student Association or LDSSA) are rarely present to point out the flaws in these kinds of statements. This is at least in part because there are so few of us. Knowing when and where professors are referencing “mormons” would take nothing short of a sixth sense. In our absence (and quite honestly, even in our presence), professors stand as an authority figure on the history and beliefs of our church, and their opinions are conveyed to students as though they are fact.
To put this classroom scenario into perspective, consider for a moment the discomfort you might feel if a professor referred to Islam, as “that religion a guy started so he could oppress women.” You and I both know that this is untrue, and certainly we would stand with our Muslim siblings in protest of such intolerant speech. Why, then, do we not afford this same care for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Is it because we are not aware of the falsehoods told by professors? Or might it be because what our professors say confirms beliefs we already have?
The perpetuating of “anti-mormon” sentiment, then, does not only stem from professors who unjustly recount opinion based histories of the church, but on the students who are prone to accept such histories because of their own biases. We can see this not only in the classroom, but also woven into the fabric of social life. Take, for example, an experience from my first year at Wellesley. In the 2015-16 school year, the Office of Student Involvement subsidized tickets to see the musical Book of Mormon. Though it was meant as a way to encourage students to socialize outside of Wellesley campus, it had the unintended consequence of promoting the ostracization of the LDSSA. Though some students approached me and other members of the LDSSA after seeing the show and asked about our faith, many more were content allowing the creators of South Park to inform them about the beliefs and practices of the 16 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If I had a dime for every time someone sang me “Turn it Off” that year, I might have had enough to pay the full tuition.
It should be clarified that what I am suggesting here is not just a grievance against the musical Book of Mormon or any classroom critique of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am much more concerned about the way the treatment of Latter-day Saint students on campus says about our commitment to our community’s values. When the viewpoints and experiences of a group of students are addressed through targeted humor or outright dismissal, it is a failure on the hands of Wellesley students and faculty alike to respect the diversity that exists here. This does not hold only for LDSSA students, but extends to students of all identities. If we are to stay true to the college’s mission to value diversity, we cannot pick and choose which groups are okay to mock, simply because our professors said so, or because it is set to a catchy tune. I know that Latter-day Saints will always be a peculiar people. I fully expect that we will continue to face this “anti-mormon” sentiment throughout the world. My hope is that, at the very least, we can work to minimize it here at Wellesley.