Opinion | Mormons have to stop being so nice

In an era of high-minded inclusivity, it’s worth pausing to wonder how a crowd of people — strangers even — could feel comfortable chanting “F— the Mormons” in unison, again and again, over the course of a three-hour sporting event. The fact that such a circumstance has occurred not once but twice at different Pac-12 college football stadiums in recent years raises yet another question: Why isn’t more being done to stop it?

On Saturday, a college football fan, who has been identified only as Aubrey, traveled from the East Coast to Eugene, Oregon, to watch her alma mater, Brigham Young University, face off against the Oregon Ducks. BYU lost, 41-20, but it wasn’t the scoreboard that soured Aubrey’s experience. During the game, she said, the crowd nearby began chanting “F— the Mormons.” Over and over.

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU’s sponsoring institution, Aubrey wanted the chanting to stop. But she also didn’t want to make matters worse by confronting a rowdy crowd. According to the account she shared with NBC affiliate KSL of Salt Lake City, it was only after the chanting started up for a third time that she took out her phone and began recording, hoping the Oregon fans would take notice and cease. 

They didn’t.

Eventually she spoke with a stadium staff member who was rightly upset about the chanting, though it’s not clear what, if any, action was taken. Before that, she said, the first stadium worker she approached shrugged it off. “He apparently thought it was funny,” she surmised.

Certainly, there’s something to be said for being good-humored, not taking yourself too seriously and laughing off trivial offenses — we all know about sticks and stones. Latter-day Saints have a fair track record when it comes to cheek-turning. 

Both schools should be applauded for publicly condemning these chants, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of the apologies. But I also think it’s reasonable to expect schools to do more.

The church, for example, was praised for its cool-headed response to “The Book of Mormon.” The musical by the creators of “South Park,” an animated TV show that had ridiculed the religion, enthralls Broadway audiences to this day with a mix of impiety and misinformation. (It may be news to the comically earnest lead in the musical — “Elder Price” — but God’s plan doesn’t, in fact, involve your getting your “own planet.”)

When the play debuted in 2011, the church famously decided not to protest but to instead take out Playbill ads reading, “You’ve seen the play…now read the book.” The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins last year described his reaction at the time in a lengthy magazine feature about his faith: “I remember being delighted by the Church’s response. Such savvy PR! Such a good-natured gesture! See, everyone? We can take a joke!

But then Coppins ran into a theater critic who, after seeing the musical, “marveled at how the show got away with being so ruthless toward a minority religion without any meaningful backlash.” Coppins chalked it up to Latter-day Saint “niceness.” But the critic proffered an alternative explanation: “It’s because your people have absolutely no cultural cachet.”

Maybe the critic is right and Latter-day Saints really do suffer from the kind of acute cachet deficiencies that come when a culture is born and bred in flyover country. Or perhaps a mixture of non-coastal niceness and a distinctly Latter-day Saint ability to smile even while doors slam on proselytizing missions plays a role. 

Regardless, after this most recent round of chants, it’s time to ask, as Coppins seems to, whether too much good humor in the face of vulgar entertainment and displays of public bigotry and a rash of church vandalism — including the attempted burning of a temple in July — can also unintentionally normalize or even enable that bigotry.

There’s of course a balance to strike in the case of the Oregon chants. There are wise reasons for the First Amendment’s strong protections of speech, even deeply offensive speech, in public places. And yet, if you can publicly chant “F— the Mormons” with only minimal social consequences, it’s time for Latter-day Saints to collectively push, as Aubrey sought to do, for greater and more immediate action. Especially from school officials when animosity flares on campuses.

As MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell once quipped: “Mormons are the nicest people in the world. … They’ll never take a shot at me.” Indeed, when “The Book of Mormon” came out, the show’s creators said they knew the church was “going to be cool. … We weren’t that surprised by the church’s response.” 

Perhaps that’s why the offensive chant wasn’t stamped out the first time, even though the University of Southern California apologized after the episode last year. As has Oregon this year. Both schools should be applauded for publicly condemning these chants, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of the apologies. But I also think it’s reasonable to expect schools to do more. 

Universities should counsel fans and students about good sportsmanship. They should set public expectations and take measures to enforce them. They should send personnel into the crowd when necessary and, in extreme circumstances, remove offending fans. They should hold fans and students, as well as staff members who act as amused bystanders, to a reasonable standard of accountability.

It’s the right thing to do not only for visiting fans, but also for the schools themselves. During the USC-BYU game last year, USC’s very own quarterback was a Latter-day Saint.

It’s the right thing to do not only for visiting fans, but also for the schools themselves. During the USC-BYU game last year, USC’s very own quarterback was a Latter-day Saint. So, too, it turns out, was one of USC’s assistant coaches, according to reporting from my publication, the Deseret News.

At Saturday’s Oregon-BYU game, high school quarterback prospect TC Manumaleuna of Salem, Oregon, was in attendance as a potential recruit for the Ducks. After hearing the chants directed at his faith, Manumaleuna and his family packed up and left the game early, according to the Statesman Journal

I don’t believe people should have to walk on eggshells for fear of giving offense where none is intended. Nor do I believe a pluralistic society survives very long on extended cycles of entrenched identitarian grievances. Turning the other cheek remains both a sublime Christian admonition and, secularly speaking, just good advice.

But I don’t believe it violates that principle to ask universities to live up to what they claim to be — diverse and inclusive environments. One Pac-12 commercial last year featured two contemporary shorthands for these ideals, an LGBTQ pride flag and a Black Lives Matter banner, while a sonorous voice boasted about “the progressive spirit that distinguishes our student-athletes, faculty and fans from all others.”

It’s a noble and inspiring concept. It’s certainly one worthy of enshrining in a TV commercial. But after last weekend, I can’t imagine Aubrey or Manumaleuna believe it’s always the lived reality.

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