On Mentioning Unmentionables

This weekend, aging pop diva and American Treasure Cher put her foot in her famous mouth.  Her accomplice in the act was Twitter, which seems to have been invented almost exclusively to help celebrities say things they will regret.

Cher’s tweet: “I Feel if he [Obama] doesn’t get all his DUCKS IN A ROW we’ll b forced 2 listen 2Uncaring Richy Rich! The whitest man in MAGIC UNDERWEAR in the WH [White House].”

The tweet echoes another controversial tweet from a few months back, when New York Times columnist Charles Blow posted an angry tweet about Romney, again referencing his Mormon “magic underwear.”

Upon realizing that his tweet was offensive, Blow apologized.  There is no indication that Cher has done so.

It’s a fact of modern life that celebrities can say stupid things.  Add to that the corollary that current reporting on celebrity tweets is about as good as celebrity tweets deserve (i.e., terrible).* Contrary to some of the reports, there is no evidence that the entire LDS Church has sprung into high dudgeon over the poorly spelled ramblings of an over-the-hill singer.  The LDS Church has endured more difficult challenges than a ribbing by Cher.

That said, the world needs a little clarity about the Mormon underwear thing.  Several of the stories about the tweet make the odd, wishy-washy statement that mentioning “magic underwear” is an “alleged slur.”  I’m not sure what source they are going to call to confirm whether this is a slur or not, but let’s discuss what we know.  Active, believing adults in the LDS Church occasionally attend LDS temples.   These temples (which are distinct from the much more numerous meeting houses around the world) host a set of ceremonies believed by Mormons to be very sacred.  One of these ceremonies is called the “endowment,” in which a person makes basic covenants with God, and receives in exchange a promise of blessings, along with a “temple garment.”  The garment is meant to be worn constantly under one’s clothing, as a reminder of the promises the person has made in the temple– much like a person wears a yarmulke, or a cross.  The garment consists of white clothing that covers the body as normal underwear would, and is otherwise pretty unremarkable in terms of aesthetics.  Mormons generally have many sets of garments, and wash and wear them as normal underclothing.

There is no setting in which Mormons refer to their “garments” (as they are informally called) as “magic underwear,” or “celestial underwear,” as some of the stories have reported.  While generally hard to truly offend, Mormons do feel discomfort in hearing this ceremonial clothing mocked, especially with the obviously pejorative “magic underwear.”  Mormons do not believe the garment to be magical, indeed (it should go without saying) do not believe in magic.  Officially, the garment is said to bring spiritual protection, i.e., by clothing oneself in sacred reminders of one’s spiritual commitments, one can bring protection from temptation and wavering faith.  Unofficially, there has been a folk belief in some circles in the LDS Church that garments provide a protection from physical harm.  There are those in the Church that maintain this belief; it is unofficial.  It is likely from this folk understanding that the derisive term “magic underwear” arose.

Since garments are viewed as a symbol of deep religious commitments, and are also, well, underwear, Mormons aren’t especially fond of sensational public discussion of the topic.  The LDS Church asks that people discussing the garment speak of them respectfully, “as they would religious vestments of other faiths.”  This is not a ridiculous request.  There are many other religions that involve religious vestments, including the prayer shawl of the Jews, the vestments of the Catholic priest, and the clerical clothing worn by the clergy of many Christian sects.  All are generally treated with respect by the press and public.  One imagines that there would be very little tolerance for a person publicly using derisive terms for a yarmulke, for example.

Mormons know that their faith is a novelty for some.  They are generally game for a lively discussion of the many facets of their religion.  However, there’s no reason the world should expect Mormons to tolerate snide, mean-spirited jabs at things they hold private and deeply sacred, when no one else is expected to.

(Photo via Daily Express)

*The coverage of Cher’s tweet and the resulting controversy have been interesting, to say the least.  For example, the website DigitalSpy cites the tweet and then offers its own authoritative correction, stating that Mormons take offense at the term “magic underwear,” preferring the official term “celestial underwear.”  Wrong.  The DS piece goes on to provide an official response from the LDS Church, which, if you happen to click through, turns out to be a tweet from an unnamed person who is apparently one of many million Mormons.  I understand we’re not talking about the Wall Street Journal here, but you’d expect even a celebrity beat writer in the age of twitter would know how to distinguish between a tweet from a random person and an official statement by a large organization.  Other outlets have reported that Cher’s tweet has upset “leading Mormons,” without ever naming any– except to say that people on Twitter have accused her of bigotry.

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