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.



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



    Eric Dursteler, 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.
    Stephen Clark
    Salt Lake City