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Mormons and Muslims, South Park and Charlie Hebdo: Why the difference?

Written By | Jan 9, 2015

Today Mormons are among the most pleasant, inoffensive people you’re likely to meet, known more for love of country, a strong focus on family, and for helping their neighbors than for visiting God’s wrath on their enemies. They live very comfortably in a secular world, outside of the theocracy that was Brigham Young’s Deseret.

Whatever Baptists might believe, Mormonism comes from a Christian tradition rooted in Western civilization. Christians haven’t always been kind to non-Christians or to the wrong kind of Christians – Crusades, the Inquisition, and Europe’s religious wars after the Reformation bear witness to frequent Christian barbarism – but Christianity has evolved hand-in-glove with Western political thought, and it has been influenced by the same strains that created the Western intellectual tradition.

Though it arose in the Middle East, Christianity is Western. Early Christian theologians adopted elements of Greek philosophy – first Plato, and later Aristotle, who with some historical irony was reintroduced to the Christian world by the Muslims – to provide a philosophical framework and defense for the new religion.

The Greek philosophers had considerable impact on the way Western civilization developed. Plato and Aristotle weren’t Christian – they predated Christ by centuries – nor were they even particularly religious. Their work resonated with political thinkers, not just Christian theologians. Strains of Aeschylus and Oresteia resonate in our legal and political institutions, along with Plato and Aristotle.

Islam is not Western. It arises from the same religious cauldron that produced Judaism and Christianity, and Arab scholars preserved a great deal of knowledge that was lost to the West during the Dark Ages, but they studied and admired it without ever letting it mingle into the teachings of Mohammed.

The work Muslim scholars did on mathematics, astronomy and medicine in the 10th and 11th centuries made Europeans of the time look like savages. But Islam is not Western.

The division between religion and the state comes naturally, if not always easily, to the Western mind. Even when Catholicism had a religious monopoly in Europe, kings and popes fought for power, as did kings and their princes. Absolutism was a rising tide in Russia and the Middle East when Western Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, but a receding tide in Europe.

Islam is not a pew-on-Sunday religion. It is a way of life that encompasses politics and philosophy, obliterating the lines between secular and spiritual. “In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful” doesn’t just precede sacred utterances; it is written at the top of university exams in chemistry and geography. Islam is not just what a devout Muslim believes, but how he lives and who he is.

To a Westerner, Charlie Hebdo was a political publication. Religion is religion, and politics is politics, and never should they meet. The Muslim would ask, how can they not?

Mormonism in the Utah territory was closer to being a complete way of life than other brands of Christianity, and it remains a highly demanding religion today. Mormons speak of being “active,” which conveys much more than planting themselves in pews on Sunday. It includes being worthy to go to the temple, and then going there at every opportunity. It includes standards of dress and prohibitions on tobacco, alcohol and coffee. It includes weekly “family home evenings,” home teaching – monthly visits by men to members of the congregation to see how they’re doing, to provide temporal help, and provide spiritual messages – visiting teaching (like home teaching, but done by women for women), daily, early morning religion classes for teenagers (“seminary”), and more.

Combined with all the callings that Mormons take on – everything from teaching Sunday school to leading auxiliary organizations to serving 2-year, full-time, unpaid missions – being an “active” Mormon can be a full-time job.

What might have been is anyone’s guess, but the U.S. intruded and Mormons didn’t follow the path of Islam. Coming from a Western tradition, they probably never would have. Instead they adopted the ideas of the U.S. Constitution and the European liberalism that gave rise to it with a vengeance.

After deciding that the church could not be secure in its mountain isolation, LDS leaders concluded that the territory must become a state, and Utahans must become American citizens the same way Mormons take on other serious endeavors: with full commitment. In the 20th century, Mormons became more American than apple pie.

Mormons have moved from being a despised religious sect on the fringe of American life to being a people apart, yet fully committed to the “secular gospel” of the Constitution. Mitt Romney is as establishment all-American as they come. The Tabernacle Choir is a musical institution that has performed across the country and at presidential inaugural parades. Mormons are strongly represented in the U.S. military, CIA, FBI and NSA.

Muslims in Europe have not assimilated neatly into European culture. That culture is alien, and they understand very well that adopting it would not just be a political adjustment, but a religious capitulation.

Most Muslims are probably as horrified by what happened at Charlie Hebdo as the rest of us, but a sizable part of the Muslim world is not. Most Egyptians, Saudis and Kuwaitis consider it reasonable to execute a Muslim who converts to Christianity. Mockery of Mohammed is not something they can take lightly.

We hear often that the Islamists who commit terrorist acts are not the true face of Islam, and they are not, but the problem is that Islam has no true face. It is not a church the way Roman Catholicism is a church, with a pope who can speak for the church and be its face. It is a culture. It can’t be reformed in a Reformation, as Christianity was. That requires a center that transmits change to the whole body. Islam can only change as Muslims change.

Mormons have a leadership who decide the direction of the church. The image of the LDS man today includes a white shirt, a conservative tie, and a clean-shaven face. Had the brethren — term Mormons use for their collective upper leadership — decided to keep their beards and adopt “brofros” and loud colors in the 50s and 60s rather than adopting the dress and grooming standards of IBM executives, that would be the image today.

The Mormon church can’t turn on a dime, but it can change and adapt to political and cultural realities — as can other Christian churches — in a way that Islam can’t. Mormons have been pragmatic in the face of superior force without abandoning anything essential to their character. Muslims as a group haven’t learned to do that.

The violence of Islamists is not a fringe phenomenon, but something more deeply intertwined with Muslim religious culture. It will not go away. Don’t expect to see Oh, Mohammed! the musical on Broadway. It would be too dangerous. The Mormons, on the other hand, will happily stand outside the theater to talk about the Book of Mormon with you — the book, though, not the musical. You’ll even find a few of them inside, enjoying the show.

Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.