BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY (BYU) ERIC DURSTELER
BYU Professor Defends Mo-ham-mad and Slams Christendom!
Attacks on Islam, Mormonism spring from the same dark well
By Eric Dursteler
Salt Lake Tribune
As a Mormon and a historian, I have watched with a certain fascination the maelstrom which has raged around Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy.
While religion has been front and center throughout the campaign,
Romney has assiduously avoided any substantive theological discussions
of Mormonism's basic tenets, and generally his fellow candidates and
the media have not delved too deeply into the doctrines and practices
of his uniquely American religion.
The gloves came off, however, in an apoplectic broadside delivered
by liberal pundit and television writer/producer Lawrence O'Donnell
during a McLaughlin Group debate of Romney's "faith of my fathers"
speech. O'Donnell derided Romney's religion as "based on the work of a
lying, fraudulent criminal named Joseph Smith who was a racist, . . . a
slavery champion, [and] the inventor of this ridiculous religion."
To O'Donnell's credit (or shame), he did not recant. Indeed, he
expanded on his views in other forums. Of the Book of Mormon, he said
"it's an insane document produced by a madman who was a criminal and a
rapist," and he asserted that Mormonism "was founded by an alcoholic
criminal named Joseph Smith who committed bank fraud and claimed God
told him polygamy was cool after his first wife caught him having an
affair with the maid."
While the historical and logical flaws of O'Donnell's contentions
are obvious, I was intrigued by the language of the attack. In
describing Joseph Smith as a criminal, a fraud and a rapist, O'Donnell
was drawing on deeply-rooted themes and images which medieval
Christians used in the age of the Crusades, and which were revived in
the 19th century by critics of Mormonism.
In the Middle Ages, European contacts with Islam through crusade
and commerce produced an expansive, almost obsessive, literature
treating the faith's history, beliefs and practices. Much of this
polemical literature focused on Muhammad as a means to disproving and
discrediting Islam, and a fantastical and fabricated pseudo-biography
was invented to enumerate the myriad personal flaws of the Prophet.
To this end, medieval writers such as Peter of Poitiers described
Muhammad as a hypocrite, a liar, a sorcerer, a thief, a murderer and an
adulterer. This latter charge was common, and authors made much of
Muhammad's supposed libidinousness and lechery, evident to them in his
own personal life and the Quran's validation of polygamy.
These medieval views of Muhammad and Islam enjoyed long shelf
lives. Variations on the same old themes resurfaced following the 9/11
terrorist attacks in statements by conservative evangelical leaders who
described Muhammad as "a robber and a brigand," a "demon-possessed
pedophile," and Islam as "a very evil and wicked religion."
While the work of Edward Said and other scholars has familiarized
modern readers with the historical distortions of Muhammad and Islam,
the Mormon variation on this theme is much less well known. During the
19th century as Mormonism began to expand, American commentators dusted
off the centuries-old rhetoric used against Islam and in similarly
vituperative fashion equated the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, with the
Muslim prophet, Muhammad. From the faith's earliest days, Smith was
referred to as the "Yankee" or the "American" Muhammad, and newspaper
editors included him in a long line of religious imposters, which
included the Muslim prophet.
One of the earliest anti-Mormon works, Mormonism Unvailed,
likened Smith to "the great prince of deceivers, Mohammed." A later
tract attributed to the Mormon leader a laundry list of bad behavior:
He was "a low, vulgar, lazy, worthless, profane character; addicted to
strong drink, and accused of sheep-stealing." His alleged revelations
on plural marriage were intended as "a cloak to cover . . . [his]
vileness . . . [as a] holy seducer."
This last charge was particularly common, and here too writers drew
explicit parallels between the Mormon and the Muslim prophets,
especially after word of Mormon polygamy began circulating. One author
wrote that Mormonism "bears in many respects a striking resemblance to
Mahometanism, especially as to its sensual character." Another
intimated that "both Joseph Smith and Mohammed used a word of God to
settle their private needs and most intimate love affairs."
As with medieval Christians writing on Islam, for 19th century
American commentators on Mormonism, among the most compelling ways to
prove the falsehood of these new, competing faiths, was to expose their
founders as frauds, imposters and moral degenerates.
The post-9/11 comments on Islam and O'Donnell's recent diatribe
against Mormonism suggest that medieval modes of thought still resonate
in contemporary religious dialogue. When the ill-informed, the
provocateur, or simply those looking to boost ratings, they have a
ready supply of well-worn, tried-and-proven polemical firebombs at
their disposal to denigrate and marginalize individuals and communities
that do not fit squarely into their intolerant models of society.
* ERIC DURSTELER is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University.
WHO WANTS TO READ ABOUT THE LIFE OF MO-HAM-MAD?
Will Brigham Young University professor Eric Dursteler apologize to Mormon Marriott and Orthodox Christians for his incorrect assumption that Islam is a peaceful religion?
The first Mormon
Public Forum Letter
The Salt Lake Daily Tribune
associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, wrote an
op-ed piece in which he accused TV writer/producer Lawrence O'Donnell
of using "centuries-old rhetoric" to criticize Joseph Smith, founder of
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ("Attacks on Islam,
Mormonism spring from the same dark well," Opinion, Jan. 22).
The criticism of Smith may have been exaggerated on some points:
Smith may not have been labeled a rapist in the 1830s, but he
definitely was a womanizer of many women, and even some teenagers.
Also, Smith may not have been an alcoholic, but he was known to imbibe
quite frequently. He even had a bar in the Nauvoo House.
Most of the other assertions about Smith by O'Donnell are actually
true. For example, Smith did commit bank fraud. He did lie to the
public about the LDS practice of plural marriage.
Why didn't Dursteler separate the exaggerations from the facts,
instead of implying that all of the accusations against Smith were
unfounded? When a political commentator stretches the facts, it doesn't
help to respond with obfuscation.
Salt Lake City
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