Anti-Catholicism has been described as the “last acceptable prejudice“. In an essay for Inside Higher Ed Thomas C. Terry, a professor of communications at Idaho State University, contends that Catholics may have to share that dubious honor with Mormons, at least in the academy. Although he is Episcopalian, Terry is concerned by the general hostility to Mormons he encountered in academic life. The money graph:

I’ve attended numerous scholarly conferences[…]where Mormonism has been discussed, and it is amazing to confront snide and disdainful comments and even overt prejudice from intellectually and sophisticated academics. And it seems perfectly acceptable to express this bias. Mormons are abnormal, outside the mainstream; everybody knows that. They don’t drink alcohol and coffee. Their women are suppressed. They don’t like the cross, and their most holy book seems made up. And there’s that multiple-wives thing. At one session involving a discussion of Utah’s history, several dismissive comments were spoken, rather blithely and without any sense of embarrassment. Belittling comments were made about Mormons’ abstemiousness, and there was a general negative undercurrent. The LDS Church was referred to as the Mormon Church, something many members object to. They don’t mind being called Mormons, but their church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or LDS Church. At least some of the professors who were making these remarks knew that.

Although these anecdotes are pretty vague, they match my own experience in and around universities.  Outside of settings specifically devoted to religious issues, Mormons do seem to be the target of disproportionate and unusually explicit mockery. One cause, I suspect was the popular HBO series Big Love, which drew attention to the association between Mormons and polygamy even though the practice has long since been rejected by the LDS Church. Another, of course, is Mitt Romney’s candidacy for President.

It’s important to recognize that most academics’  aversion to Mormonism is not rooted in theological disputes, such as the divinity of Jesus or the contents of the canon (I would be surprised, for example, in many of Terry’s colleagues knew why Mormons reject the cross as a symbol). Rather, it’s the sense that Mormons are not like us; that they are concealing a sinister agenda, no matter how nice they seem. In a way, this attitude resembles some conservatives’ suspicion of Barack Obama. It’s a perception of difference that easily turns into an presumption of guilt.

But why should Mormonism be regarded as especially weird? I think the answer has less to do with ignorance than with Mormonism’s lack of a cultural tradition that can be balanced against its theological and social distinctiveness. Lots of academics dislike the Roman Catholic church, for example. At least in my experience, however, nearly all can be brought to acknowledge its enormous contributions to thought and to art. Mormonism doesn’t have this kind of history. So it’s an even easier target for cultured despisers.

For all that, Terry goes too far when he compares the climate in the universities to Jim Crow. There’s obviously no legal bar to Mormon participation in academic life, and not much of a social one–at least for Mormons who don’t make a point of their faith. But the essay is a useful reminder that professors aren’t as broad-minded as they like to think. I mean a reminder for us academics. Everyone else already knows that.