Mormonism is Christianity’s ultra conservative baby cousin. It was created in Illinois in 1830 by Joseph Smith, the quintessential white guy. He was arrested thirty times due to his beliefs and was once tarred and feathered. Smith was shot to death in 1844 and became a martyr. The initial persecution of Mormons is reminiscent of Islamophobia today. The Mormon faith is beautifully American, “we believe that… Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent,” states the tenth article of the Mormon faith. After Smith’s death, Brigham Young made an executive decision to move the religion to the American West. When I drove through the primeval state earlier this year, it really did feel like Zion: trickling streams, boulders perfectly balanced on top of one another and eroded rock formations that seemed simply unbelievable. A redneck man with a long beard and top hat or a woman with an ankle length skirt and twelve kids would have fit in perfectly. But I didn’t see any of the caricatures of Mormons that I expected to see. On the second day of our trip, we drove past Brigham Young University, the largest religious university in the USA. You can imagine how alien this campus must be to an Australian student. Upon my return to Sydney, I decided to put my thoughtless assumptions of the religion to the test. I spoke to my Mormon equivalent, Rebecca Lane, who is in her senior year at BYU and edits the student newspaper, The Universe. After speaking to a real Mormon for half an hour, it became evident that as illogical and ridiculous as this religion may appear to be, the people that it produces aren’t as crazy as I once thought.
Rebecca started the conversation by telling me how she ended up at BYU. “People in my hometown of Colorado thought it was odd that I only wear skirts that fall below the knee and that I refuse to wear tank tops and tight clothes.” I had previously heard that even skinny leg jeans were banned at the college, but that was not officially the case. A specific type of underwear, the temple garment, helps remind Mormons of the promises that they have made to God.
BYU’s equivalent of Manning or Hermanns is ‘The Wall’. It prides itself on its ‘stone bar,’ where all drinks are non-alcoholic. You can buy standard soft drinks – although caffeinated energy drinks are frowned upon – and you can even try some fruit slushies and ice cream floats!
For someone that values the freedom of expression and choice that I have had by attending Sydney University, I was interested to see if Rebecca felt like she was missing out on anything in life by attending such a strictly religious educational institution. “You miss out on pop culture, I guess you could say. But no I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything really. You learn to have fun without alcohol encouraging us to in our systems… I’m fine with myself to the extent that I can jump around with people and just laugh and have a good time.” She had a confidence that conveyed an acceptance of who she was instead of an expression of delusion.
I was also interested in the missionary service that is central to the religion. At BYU, over 46% of the student population travel to a foreign country as “messengers of the Lord.” It is not as essential for women as it is for men, but Rebecca decided to participate at the age of 21. This has been a vital feature of Mormonism since it was created. Seven years after the church was set up, it was sending missionaries all over the world. Rebecca was called to St Petersburg, Russia. Her only previous knowledge of the country was from the movie Anastasia and her knowledge of the language was limited to the word ‘dasvidanya’ (goodbye). “You get three months in what’s called the Missionary Training Centre where you learn the lessons you’ll teach and they give you three months of Russian instruction,” she told me. Rebecca was thrown into the deep end, having to teach in Russian from the moment she stepped off the plane. “That was a very hard time. There’s a lot of hostility. A lot of people don’t want you there and tell you to go home, and you’re like, ‘well okay, but I’m going to stay.’” Well, you get what you give, right? I would have previously viewed this as Rebecca’s own doing – what did she expect when she was spreading the words of an absurd piece of fiction? Instead, I found myself empathising with her and feeling glad that her 18 months overseas were not completely worthless. “I’ve seen people that have had incredible drinking problems and they’ve been able to give that up and have a better family life and a better life in general because of learning to believe in God,” she said.
Rebecca was shocked by the level of cultural diversity at USYD and genuinely asked me if I have a kangaroo as a pet. I didn’t really represent anything that her religion would condemn, and maybe that’s why we could have a really interesting and pleasant conversation. But as bizarre as it may be, with 13 million followers and counting, Mormonism remains one of the fastest growing religions in the world. In Rebecca’s words, “the thing is that Mormonism, well it’s not very well known. There have been a lot of questions with people that haven’t found answers and they don’t actually ask Mormons when they seek these answers. The biggest thing that I think we encounter is misunderstanding.”