There is a classic Saturday Night Live skit (from back when it was funny) that perfectly captures one of my nagging anxieties about being Mormon. In the skit, Eddie Murphy is in a room full of white guys. They are all polite and friendly, but painfully stiff and formal. Murphy tries in vain to get them to loosen up. He then leaves the room, and the stiff white guys immediately cut loose, cranking up the music, boogying (the skit is from the late 1970s), and generally acting “black.” When Murphy enters the room again, the boogying white guys immediately return to their uptight WASP-ish persona. And so on.
The skit is telling, poking fun at the powerful and subtle exclusion of blacks from white society. The nagging black suspicion illustrated by the skit is that no matter how friendly the stiff white guys seem, you are not really part of the group. Things are different as soon as you leave the room. I have similar suspicions about Mormonism and the WASP establishment. American Mormons live in the world created by a century of assiduous assimilation on the part of the Church. In the words of President Hinckley, our message to the world is “We are not weird.” We look like you. We act like you (except for the coffee and booze thing). We fit in. We are WASPs to, just without the Protestantism, and really we’re almost just like Protestants anyway. We fit in. We can be part of the group.
And it appears that we are. We get to be in the room, and generally speaking we get treated with polite and friendly respect. But what happens when we leave the room? Do they all cut loose, giving lie to the veneer of acceptance that we saw when we were there? Underneath the politeness are we still outsiders? It is hard to say, and I suspect that most of the time the reaction to Mormons is that there is no reaction. Religious identity just isn’t an issue. At other times, however, I feel like Eddie Murphy and I have stolen into the room early only to find the stiff white guys cutting loose.
In many ways, the reactions to Richard Bushman’s book strike me as this kind of moment. I certainly don’t want to suggest that there is anything wrong with criticizing Bushman or his book. Indeed, there are important and valid criticisms to be made. (There always are.) On the other hand, a great deal of the Gentile reaction to the book has been revealing. It hasn’t made any substantive criticisms, or even tried to substantively engage the book. Rather, it has simply dwelt upon the fact that Mormonism in general — and Joseph Smith in particular — are just too weird, and frankly we probably can’t trust Bushman to talk about them because, you know, he is one of them. And hence my suspicion: Behind the pleasant and respectful veneer that Mormons generally encounter in America, what are they really thinking? I suspect that they think we are nuts.
Of course, at the end of the day this is probably not such a bad thing. One of the nice things about living in a liberal society, is that you can have peaceful, productive, friendly, cooperative interactions with people who think that you are nuts. It needn’t be an issue. Furthermore, I wouldn’t want Mormonism to be made completely safe. The subtle frontier in the WASP-filled room marks off my identity as something meaningful and powerful. Without it, I am just another stiff white guy trying to boogie.