Matt Bowman, LDS historian and emerging public intellectual, has a piece in the Washington Post: “An obscene anti-Mormon chant marks a grim irony in the church’s history.” Let’s talk about it. It’s not like we look to the student section of college sports crowds for any great insights into life, but it is a public event and it does mean something. Last week, a visiting player at a BYU volleyball game (possibly) hears ugly comments directed at her and the national media runs with the story for days. This week, the crowd at a college football game in Oregon chants “F*** the Mormons!” at the visiting BYU team and, well, whatever, no big deal.

Let’s see a few quotes from Bowman’s article.

[H]ow did we get to the point where the BYU graduate who captured the chant on video could tell a reporter that she was disappointed, though not necessarily surprised because “you don’t make fun of a lot of religions, but Mormons are free game”?

Why are Mormons “free game”? Do we deserve it? The earlier volleyball story had credibility because for a lot of people the idea that a fan or fans at a Utah sporting event would direct ugly racist heckling at a visiting player is not surprising. It has happened before. Utah sports fans apparently have a very bad reputation. I doubt that Oregon fans were thinking what goes around comes around. But I doubt a similar chant would be directed at Catholics in general if Notre Dame were Oregon’s opponent. What’s going on here? Bowman comments:

The arc of the church’s history, from an object of fear and confusion in the 19th century, to hard-won respectability by the mid-20th century, to “free game” today, tells us a great deal about the church itself, but also about the place of religion in the United States.

No, I don’t think it’s a commentary on “the place of religion in the United States.” I think it’s a commentary on the place of the *LDS* religion in the United States. My sense is that after a pretty good PR run during the Hinckley years, with an improving public image, the public image of the LDS Church has turned in the other direction during the four years of President Nelson’s tenure. [Is it only four years? Seems like ten or twenty.] It seems like the current LDS leadership’s retrenchment campaign is more concerned with internal issues and not at all concerned with the PR consequences. Which is odd for a church that puts tens of thousands of young proselyting missionaries in the field hoping to garner converts.

By the 1990s, this parodic version of the church [The God Makers, etc.] entered mainstream U.S. culture in the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the television show “South Park” and the Broadway musical the “Book of Mormon,” both of which lampoon LDS church members as ostensibly nice, but also terminally stupid and ridiculous.

It’s not the idea that Mormons are stupid and ridiculous that’s the problem at the moment, it’s the idea that Mormons are bigoted and racist. That’s what’s part of both the volleyball story and (fairly or unfairly) the BYU football game story. Here’s a last quote from the article.

Put bluntly, the LDS church has found itself, willingly or not, on the side of cultural issues decidedly not favored by most young people in the United States.

I think he’s understating his conclusion. It’s not just young people, it’s people in general who are troubled. It’s not just “cultural issues,” it’s political issues and moral issues. No doubt the LDS leadership sees these developments as just another religious freedom story where the Church is always an innocent victim that has done nothing, nothing at all, to deserve such treatment. We don’t offer apologies. Everyone should be nice to us because … religious freedom.

It’s tough to think clearly and objectively on this issue (namely, whether the public image of the Church and its members is in decline, and if so why). The Church is an easy target. And the Church does a lot of good things. But it sure seems like the Church and its members have a gift for generating bad news stories lately.

Here are two questions to ponder in the comments. First, is Bowman right that the public image of Mormons and the Church is bad right now and trending worse? And why?

Second, let’s think about this in terms of next week’s General Conference. What is more likely, that we hear two or three GA talks directing the membership to be good neighbors, good Christians, and to avoid any hint of racism or ugliness in conversation and behavior? Or that we hear two or three GA talks about religious freedom giving the Church and its members a free pass when it comes to public accountability?