America Comment

Catholics and Mormons have more in common than we may think

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and church leaders sing together in the Conference Center during the 186th Annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on April 2, 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah (Getty Images)

You know the old joke: “An Anglican, a Catholic, and a Mormon walk into a Jamaican orphanage…”

In this case, the Anglican was yours truly circa 2011, half a decade before I became a Catholic. I was an Episcopalian student at St John’s Prep, a Catholic school in northern Massachusetts. (Alumni include John J. Studzinski, the Herald’s Catholic of the Year.) Every year, the Prep sends older boys overseas, some to study abroad and others on service missions. I opted for the latter, and spent a glorious spring working for the Mustard Seed community in Montego Bay.

Mustard Seed Communities was founded by a Catholic priest, but the supply crates were stamped “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”. The LDS Church donated much of the medical equipment.

And that’s typical. Mormons are known for two things: their friendliness, and their business acumen. Put the two together, and it’s no wonder that so many non-Mormon relief groups receive Mormon support.

Thomas S. Monson, the LDS Church’s late president, embodied this spirit of charity that crosses sectarian boundaries. To quote a New York Times obituary,

He embraced humanitarian causes with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups supporting homeless shelters, food banks, nursing homes, and disaster relief efforts in the United States and abroad. “We don’t ever meet on doctrinal matters,” he told Christian Century. “It’s strictly on the social side.”

That may strike one as cutesy, until you actually find yourself in Jamaica – a country of no more than 6,000 Mormons – where the Latter-Day Saints provide essential resources to care for severely handicapped orphans in one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the Western hemisphere.

As it happens, President Monson isn’t the only Mormon making headlines this week. It has also been reported that Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, will likely run for Senate from the LDS heartland: Utah.

I got my first job in politics straight out of the Prep working for the GOP’s campaign arm during the 2012 election. That meant 14 hours of door-knocking, phone-banking, and fundraising six days a week on Mitt’s behalf. Copping it from Tea Party Republicans, who were already grumbling about “establishment elites”, was also a key part of the job. We encountered an astounding amount of anti-Mormon prejudice, too.

In retrospect, it should not have come as a surprise. Americans are divided over whether Mormonism is a Christian religion. 73 percent see little or no similarity between the LDS belief-system and their own. It’s estimated that anti-Mormon sentiment cost Romney upwards of 3 million votes: not enough to tilt the 2012 election in his favour, but enough to give one pause. Why is this particular brand of bigotry never discussed in the American media?

In fact, there are striking parallels between the history of our two faiths. Like Catholics, Mormons faced violent opposition when they first appeared in the United States. Like Catholics, Mormons face widespread misunderstanding of their beliefs – whether it’s our “worshipping saints” or their “magic underwear”. Like Catholics, they have slowly worked their way into the mainstream by serving their communities. And yet, like Catholics, they remain the object of socially-acceptable bigotry, largely because of our traditional views on morality.

In anticipation of the Utah senate race, the political strategist (and practicing Catholic) Steve Bannon said the former Massachusetts governor “hid behind [his] religion” by serving as a missionary in France during the Vietnam War. The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah’s largest weekly newspaper, took exception to the comment. “Bannon not only accused Romney of avoiding service in Vietnam,” wrote syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne; “He also trafficked in the anti-Mormon sentiments common among some evangelicals.”

Maybe that’s a tad over-sensitive. But Catholics should be the last to pooh-pooh anyone who chooses to serve their church instead of the state. We certainly should not have been the first.