Mormons or Muslims – which supremacy do we choose?
On my trip with my father to see relatives in Pensacola at the end of the Christmas Break he made a comment that I found completely bizarre. He said that he believed that in my lifetime the Muslims would have successfully taken over the world. “Everyone will be Muslim,” he said, “and we’ll have Sharia law.”
I have to admit I was absolutely dumbfounded by that remark. When I prodded my Dad on why he thought this, he would simply reply, “I just do.” I said to him that in my ongoing study of religion I found nothing to suggest this. Indeed, in the places in the world where the free market fundamentalism of globalization is not squeezing the life out of people, allegiance to organized religion generally – though not to spirituality - is declining. It’s the battlegrounds of the Third World where the fundamentalisms of Islam and Christianity are the weapons of organized resistance to the religion of free market fundamentalism with all of its exploitative, death-dealing aspects. This did not seem to register with him.
This past week I discovered why. Apparently Glen Beck on the Fox Entertainment Network my father insists upon consuming non-stop now that my mother is no longer around to scold him (“I don’t know why your father has to watch all that stuff…”) is the source of this idea. Of course, this is the same Beck who is unable or unwilling to conceptually distinguish social justice Christian movements from socialism or Reform Judaism from “radical Islam.” Beck preaches that Islam is bent on worldwide “supremacism” and that the Mahdi, the messianic figure of Islam, is, in fact, the Antichrist feared by conservative Christians who interpret the Apocalypse (Revelations) of John at the end of the New Testament as somehow referring to the present day.
There are a lot of things Glen Beck can claim about himself. Historian and theologian are clearly not among them. But one thing Beck readily claims is his own Mormon religion. And that brings this fear-mongering about Islam into a fairly sharp contrast for me.
On the one hand, I have a modicum of compassion for the Mormons. They have a bloody history of persecution by narrow-minded Christians in America enroute to their eventual spiritual home in Utah. No one deserves that kind of treatment - indeed, no one deserves to be sentenced to Utah, in my opinion - particularly not in the name of a Jesus whose spiritual path challenged the xenophobic tribalism of the religion and culture of his day, a path that would eventually cost him his life.
But it seems the Mormons learned well from their persecutors. They have a legendary history of racism and sexism. Their most recent misanthropic adventure has been their involvement in the Proposition 8 campaign in California. Estimates of Mormon contributions to the Yes on 8 campaign are as high as 77% of its total budget, nearly $18 million. The campaign featured some of the most deceptive advertising in US political history prompting the normally conservative LA Times to twice editorialize against the campaign in its primary editorial space. Calling the ads the work of “[c]lever magicians [who] practice the art of misdirection…” the editorial observed that “That truth would never sell in tolerant, live-and-let-live California, and so it has been hidden behind a series of misleading half-truths.”
One thing we can say for the Mormons, they are equal opportunity misanthropes. And were they willing to keep their misanthropy – along with their strange religion of missing tribes of Jews landing in the Americas, the commandments to engage in polygamy and the golden tablets buried in hills which supposedly spell all this out – to themselves, no one would really care. But the reality is, the Mormons are one of the great proselytizing religions of the world. Who has not seen those pairs of fresh scrubbed Mormon boys in white shirts and ties on their bicycles, Book of Mormon in hand?
My own dealing with Mormons have been far less wholesome. When Hurricane Charley put three tons of oak tree through the middle of our home in 2004, the Mormon family across the street came and got Andy out of the house before the tree fell and helped to remove the debris from the house and yard thereafter. As it turned out, the husband was a contractor. And so out of gratitude for his help, we decided to contract his services to rebuild our home.
Two years later, the house was still unfinished. The roof was completely missing and the interior still in need of renovation. I’ll never forget the night our Mormon contractor came to our rental house to tell us he wouldn’t be completing the job. Seems Katrina had destroyed the Mississippi coast and he could make more money there than by finishing our project. And so he left us, house unlivable, roof missing, two years of time and money down the drain. And as he drove out of our driveway, I’ll never forget the bumper sticker on his truck: Scouting Teaches Values. What kind of values were being taught by the example of this scout leader?
I’ve also had limited encounters with Muslims. My little brother of the Big Brothers/Little Brothers program became a Muslim. After a brief period of trouble with the juvenile system he has since gotten his college degree and is gainfully employed. His wife teaches in a Muslim school here in town and he has two beautiful daughters. This from a kid coming out of an impoverished single parent home who has two brothers who wound up in prison. He has come a long way in his life and I continue to love him and I greatly respect him. And I sense that it is precisely the tenets of Islam that provides him the needed structure he found missing for so much of his life.
I’ve also had a handful of Muslim students at the university. While they have not all been stellar students, what distinguishes them from their classmates is their respectfulness toward their instructor. I observe that most of them are hard working, some of them supporting families with full-time jobs while also attending school full time. For the most part they have been very fine students.
I have also had two imams come to speak to my classes. Both of them were very thoughtful and patient, fielding questions born largely out of media-driven ignorance about their religions. On the whole, my experience with Muslims has been as positive as my experience with Mormons has been negative.
This is hardly to say that any of these individuals necessarily represent their faith traditions. I have had Mormon friends and students who were good people. And I am more than aware of the pathologies of reactionary Islam among groups such as the Taliban. I also know there are good, compassionate Mormons, a few of whom actually have open minds. Indeed, according to the Gallup Poll, a full 8% describe themselves as – gasp – liberal! Clearly it is no more fair to judge Islam by its best examples than it is to judge Mormonism – or any other faith tradition – by their worst.
So back to the fresh scrubbed boys on the bicycles. Is it possible that when Glen Beck engages in fear-mongering about an Islamist world that he might just possibly be engaging in a little projection? Is it not the goal of Mormonism to convert the world to their faith? Isn’t that the very purpose for the boys on bikes? Indeed, do these self-proclaimed “saints” not endeavor to baptize dead people in order to sanitize them for the Mormon afterlife? Is not their goal the supremacy of Mormonism in both this world and the next?
Which brings up a conundrum for me: Which would be worse, a Muslim or a Mormon supremacist world? At some level, it seems a toss-up. All conservative religions hold pretty much the same potential pathologies based in fear. The primary difference between Glen Beck and Osama bin Laden is one of degree, not substance. Of course, the better course is that no religion should ever have control over any society even as those societies insure their right to practice their own faith as they see fit.
I hope my Dad doesn’t lose too much sleep over this. The Muslims are not coming to take over Tennessee or any other American state. The Baptists have long since beat them to it. Just ask John Scopes.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.