Readers respond to Laura Miller's essay on Mormon crimes and to an interview with Ann Coulter.

By Salon Staff
Published July 29, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

[Read "Latter-day Sinners?" by Laura Miller.]

Wow. Reading Laura Miller's "Latter-day Sinners?" made me think I'd been transported back past about a century of progressive thought and objectivity about religion.

Taking a criminal diagnosed with mental illness and extrapolating his case to a religion of millions (of which he was not even a member at the time) makes for gripping sensationalism but not for honest reporting or balanced judgment. The anti-Mormon habit of citing discredited sources and making dumbfounding leaps of "logic" (Brigham Young ordered followers not to attack in Mountain Meadows, therefore he had clearly ordered them to attack) apparently titillates Ms. Miller as much as it did the mobs that drove the Mormons out West in the first place.

Applying the same reasoning to Judaism or Catholicism, while probably far too common among the inebriated and undereducated, is at least frowned upon in public and not normally the headline topic of a liberal publication.

-- Russ Ross

As a non-Mormon who lives in Salt Lake City, I have to ask you, and myself, if Krakauer's views aren't being taken too far. We can't tar any religion with the brush of zealotry committed by some of their misguided adherents. Wahhabism, Hasidism, and fundamentalist Christian sects, though extreme, are accorded respect. Beyond-the-fringe sociopaths are not, whatever their religious banner.

How can we beleaguer the current LDS church with the acts of these crazies? As for polygamy, it ought to be a right, as long as the participants are adults. Polygamy is still a part of normal life in Africa and parts of Asia. It's not more of a diversion from traditional marriage values as same-sex marriage, a cause célèbre of the day. The practice of "honor killings" in Asia and the Middle East make me feel the dangers of patrimonial abuse more than your decrying old-style Mormonism. And the Middle Eastern abuses are current and not about to end soon.

Living in a community that is dominated by the LDS church and its members has drawbacks, and they lead to friction. But many positive aspects of the values of that church make this a community that is good to live in. There is still diversity and inclusiveness, there is also the camaraderie of island-dwellers, "gentiles" who appreciate each other's difference from the dominant culture. When we see each other at jazz and arts festivals, at the Tower theater, we feel comforted. This is still a great place to live.

If the Christian religions had to bear equally stern judgment for all the depredations of their adherents over history, then maybe there would be a fair basis to censure the Mormons who live today. How about we just live and let live? We don't need another religious minority to isolate; we all need to feel included in the great tolerance experiment that freedom demands.

-- Barry Moldover

As a politically liberal academic and longtime Salon reader and subscriber who also happens to be a committed and devout Mormon, I must respond briefly to Laura Miller's review of the Krakauer, Solomon and Denton books on Mormon fundamentalism. A few points:

1) Mob violence drove my ancestors from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois to Utah. They were consistently denied the most fundamental human rights, were beaten, tortured, jailed, robbed and murdered. Their constitutional rights were consistently and egregiously violated. To suggest, as Miller does, that Mormons had "a tendency to provoke the kind of animosity that led to persecution" is to raise blaming the victim to an art form. Would Miller suggest that the historical treatment of African-Americans in this country is evidence of a people who consistently brought persecution on themselves?

2) In regards to Mountain Meadows, Miller correctly points out that Denton's isn't the first book on the subject. Such historians as Juanita Brooks, Jan Shipps, Leonard Arrington and Will Bagley have written extensively on the subject. Denton's book is just the silliest. The evidence that Brigham Young did indeed send a letter ordering that the emigrants pass "unmolested" is not seriously disputed by historians in or out of the church. And Benton's contention that "an order not to attack implies an already standing order to do so" is just silly. Hundreds of wagon trains passed through the Great Basin in the 1850s. Trade with those wagon trains was a major part of the Utah economy, and certainly no other wagon trains were ever attacked. Why on earth would there be a "standing order" to attack wagon trains?

Mountain Meadows was a horrible tragedy. I'm ashamed and embarrassed that my ancestors could perpetrate such a crime. But it was an anomaly, an isolated event, the product of a supercharged political climate. Federal troops were on the way. A sort of siege mentality, born of a quarter century's persecution, took hold. Mountain Meadows was the result of panic, mob rule, ignorance and fear. To assert that Brigham Young ordered it so he could get his hands on all that gold is just silly nonsense. Denton offers not a shred of credible evidence for this ludicrous assertion.

3) Miller, however, trumps even Denton with her moronic statement that Brigham Young and Mao Tse-tung had a great deal in common. Brigham Young had his autocratic side, to be sure. But where did he establish Utah reeducation camps, what Cultural Revolution did he lead, what millions of his people did he slaughter? This is bigotry, plain and simple. There is no evidence whatsoever of Mao-like violence done by Brigham's hand, or in Brigham's name, or ordered by Brigham. He was a hard, tough man, in a hard, tough time. That doesn't make him guilty of genocide.

4) As for Brian David Mitchell or the Lafferty brothers, they're just kooks with no connection whatsoever to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Did they base their insane ideologies on Mormon themes? Sure. They are to contemporary Mormonism what Osama bin Laden is to contemporary Islam. I did not expect to see an article in Salon descending to the rhetorical level of the Franklin Grahams and Ann Coulters of the world.

5) The evidence that "blood atonement" was ever officially taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not strong. It was surely believed once, by a few of our members, and just as surely has been utterly repudiated today. Do we use silly things said by Baptist leaders 150 years ago as a scourge to attack contemporary Baptists?

6) Yes, Mormonism has had an interesting past. I have a great-grandfather who practiced plural marriage, for example. Nearly all Mormons I know have come to terms with our past, as I have. A few former Mormons have turned out to be murderous, criminal nutbags. Since when is that front-page news?

-- Eric Samuelsen

I read with some chagrin Laura Miller's article about three new books about lurid crimes and polygamy associated with Mormonism. As near as I can figure out, the article attempts what those books appear to take pains to avoid: damn by association the currently existing church with actions to which they have no connection whatsoever.

I'm a former Mormon, and I have family still active in the church. I don't agree with many of the teachings of the church, or with the LDS church's heavy-handed tactics in enforcing conformity.

There is actually an interesting story to tell about the present-day church's attempts to squelch any serious critique of the church's history beyond the official hagiography. But Ms. Miller doesn't tell that story.

The majority of Mormons are honest, hardworking, sincere folks who have infinitely more in common with other conservative Christians than they do with polygamists, and would never condone or accept anything like the Mountain Meadows massacre. It's a category error to attempt to link the two.

-- Kent Williams

[Read "Ann Coulter, Woman," by David Bowman.]

As a longtime Deadhead, I can tell you that, as I was, most Deadheads would be sickened at the thought that Ann Coulter considers herself a Deadhead. The Dead were all about peace, love and happiness. Coulter is all about war, hate and misery. If Jerry Garcia hadn't been cremated, he would be rolling over in his grave right now.

-- Chris Marshall

Maybe it's because I used to be a reporter covering a lot of wastewater issues, but I found Ann Coulter's rant about low-flush toilets to be the most revealing part of the interview. It paints a picture of conservatives complaining that a change has inconvenienced them because they cannot believe that anything ever has to change. And it portrays somebody who'd rather throw a tantrum than take the lid off the tank and adjust the float valve.

For the record, Ann, anyone educated in Connecticut, as I was, should know that one gallon of flush water does not equal two spoonfuls. If, as you claim, it takes 16 flushes to dispose of a tissue, you must be depositing some very high-fiber tissues in the toilet.

-- Tom Butler

Thanks for David Bowman's up-close and personal interview with Ann Coulter. How about Osama bin Laden next? I've always wondered whether his height and long beard make it difficult for him to meet girls.

-- Kyle Gann

Salon Staff

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