Americans once feared that the United States was under threat from a band of religious fanatics. The American people believed that these fanatics, who were said to force their women into unwanted marriages, wanted to replace American democracy with an extremist religious regime established by “prophets.” There were even rumors that they had committed atrocities in the name of God against American citizens in terrorist attacks.
Who were these feared “fanatics?” Muslims?
Mormons and Muslims face a similar struggle when it comes to being largely misunderstood in the United States today. When it comes to both faiths, media seem determined to focus on the rumors and extremes. Seen in this light, it is an incredible, and promising, sign that today Americans are considering the possibility of electing a Mormon, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, as their next president.
The Mormon faith was founded in 1830 in New York by American Protestants seeking a closer and more vibrant relationship with God. As the religion grew, Mormons organized settlements, first in the American Midwest, and then further westward in Utah, where they could practice their faith in community. During the 19th century, Americans viewed Mormonism as a fanatical faith dangerous enough to require military intervention. The first came through Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs’s “Mormon Extermination Order” in 1838, and later in the 1850s when President Buchanan sent federal troops to march on Utah Territory in order to strengthen US government control over Mormons.
Since then, Mormonism has grown into a global faith of 14 million members. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), to which the vast majority of Mormons belong, now live in virtually every country of the world, and represent a diverse group of people. Our political opinions span the spectrum, and one can find Mormons on either side of major national and international divides. But we all understand ourselves to be members of a global community of faith.
Given the U.S. media attention on both Mormonism and Islam of late, it is a worthwhile moment to note how much both groups have in common.
Like Islam, Mormonism is a religion of peace. Mormons consider themselves Christians and strive to uphold the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth when it comes to loving those with whom we share the world. However, because Mormons hold beliefs that differ from other Christian groups — such as that Jesus and God are separate entities — they have often been met with animosity. This animosity and sense of being misunderstood is no stranger to the Muslim American community.
One of Mormonism’s main teachings is that a person’s time on earth is a time to learn to submit to God’s will and accept life’s challenges and blessings. Modesty in dress, especially in women, is often considered a sign of piety, as is abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Mormons regularly fast and, similar to the Muslim observance of the month of Ramadan, Mormons are encouraged to give money to the poor in conjunction with fasting.
Such similarities and a desire by LDS Church leadership to foster a healthy relationship with all faiths have led to many positive, tangible interactions with Muslim Americans. The LDS Church has worked with Islamic charities and initiated outreach efforts to Muslim American communities. One LDS congregation in St. Louis, Missouri, for instance, opened its church to local Muslims for Friday prayer services. The LDS Church also pays for the education of Palestinian students who want to study at Brigham Young University, an LDS Church-owned school.
We rarely hear about efforts like these in media, whereas all too often we hear about the negative aspects of Islam, or Mormonism. A recent Gallup poll found that 18 percent of Americans would not vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who happened to be Mormon — suggesting that Americans may be wary of the impact of the religion on policy.
But there is so much more to Mormonism, just as there is more to Islam and other faith communities that call on its adherents to conduct themselves with wisdom and responsibility toward others. Our religious principles can shape the kind of moral bearings we need to address difficult global problems, political and economic, and help diminish sharp political divides.
To accomplish this, people of all faiths must start focusing on what unites us, because ultimately, so many of us share not only common beliefs but common goals for strong, faith-filled families and a relationship with a higher power — all of which become much easier when we are at peace with the world’s inhabitants.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on July 10, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.