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Confronting secular snake oil and the idea that Mormons are 'irrational'

People leave the Conference Center during the 187th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 1, 2017.
People leave the Conference Center during the 187th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 1, 2017.
Laura Seitz, Deseret news

Mormons are “irrational,” according to author Kurt Andersen — and so too, he says, are millions of other citizens who fall prey to the inordinately high number of hucksters, mystics, charlatans, religionists and fantasy-men in America. For him “truly, sincerely religious people" are those "who believe, I’m sorry, things that are so fantastical that I’m gob smacked every time I talk to people who believe these things.”

More than any other developed nation, Andersen argues, the United States today is marked by deception and snake-oil salesmen in politics, business and religion.

Exhibit A, in Andersen’s mind, is Donald Trump.

Yet, to read Andersen’s cover story in the Atlantic this month and to watch him romp through the media carousel on Charlie Rose, Atlantic Radio and CBS News, is to witness the very thing Andersen claims to abhor — sloppy salesmanship that cuts intellectual corners to turn a buck, or in this case, a book.

The central thesis of his so-called “non-fiction” — Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire — is that America has a long history of irrational hucksterism that took an even more dramatic turn during the 1960s counter-culture revolution which then led to the wide-spread acceptance of nonjudgmental subjectivism. He claims that this, in turn, enabled irrationality to flourish in modern America — especially on the right— and has now resulted in the election of president Donald Trump.

It couldn't be, of course, that legitimate frustration with liberal political policies led to Donald Trump's election — no, it simply has to be conservative irrationality, right?

The notion, however, that Americans are somehow less rational today than in past eras is itself irrational.

Go back to mid-century America in the decades before the 1960s and there is less literacy; a mere fourth of Americans 25 years old had high school diplomas, only five percent had a college degree; today, nearly a fourth of Americans graduate from college and around 90 percent graduate from high school.

Of course, literacy rates and educational attainment aren’t proxies for rationality, but the idea that irrational thinking on the political right or left is a post-1960s phenomenon does not take seriously McCarthyism of the 1950s or Southern-Democrat segregation-ism during most of the 20th century.

What's more, if America is uniquely irrational within the "developed" world — as Andersen claims — why have so many european nations given way to fascism, marxism and other irrational ideologies within the past century.

And, in more recent decades, how did a developed nation like Russia allow Putin to consolidate power? How could a developed nation like Britain vote for Brexit? Why today does Britain have a royal family? Why did Italy elect someone like Silvio Berlusconi? Why can't Greece deal squarely with its creditors?

In other words, is America uniquely "irrational" compared with the broader developed world?

And then there’s Andersen's treatment of Mormonism. The Harvard-educated Andersen dedicates an entire chapter of his new book to telling the story of the “oh-so-irrational” 19th century farm-boy prophet Joseph Smith and his gob-smackingly deceived followers.

Yet, if Smith’s “irrational” religious beliefs — embodied today in modern Mormonism — are so dangerous to America, as Andersen claims, why does Mormon-filled Utah have the kind of economic mobility that now rivals the more "rational" Scandinavian countries Andersen so clearly admires?

Why do Mormons live longer than other Americans? Why does the Mormon-dense Provo-Orem area have the highest level of wellbeing in the nation?

Utah today has some of the lowest rates of income inequality, alcohol consumption and smoking. It simultaneously has some of the highest rates of volunteerism and familial stability. While increased religious activity often correlates with less educational attainment, in Mormonism the opposite is true.

Mormons, of course, are by no means perfect or perfectly rational. Utah has its fair share of affinity fraud cases and social struggles. Yet, if Mormons are especially irrational — for believing all that Joseph Smith hocus pocus — from whence cometh all the rational pro-social outcomes?

For Andersen, the tell-tale sign of irrationality seems to be supporting Donald Trump. So, if Mormons are so darn irrational, why weren’t they the chief boosters for the man Andersen feels is America’s huckster-in-chief?

In Utah, perhaps the most consistently Republican state in the Union, Trump finished dead last in the Republican primary. While the state went for Trump, his showing in the state was the worst performance by a Republican presidential candidate in decades.

So should you buy Andersen's book? You'll certainly have a hard time rationalizing it.