Manti Te'o and the Imaginary Mormon Girlfriend

by John Turner

Struggling to explain how Manti Te'ocould have fallen for an elaborate hoax, Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports offers this possibility:

It would take a remarkable level of naiveté to be sucked in by the perpetrators of this hoax, but Te'o could be that guy. At the risk of stereotyping, I'll offer this conjecture: Te'o is a Mormon, and there are a lot of LDS members who lack significant romantic experience when entering young adulthood. Courtship might have been a novel and/or highly idealized concept. Physical interaction might not have been at the top of his relationship wish list.

Most people seem shocked at the Te'ohoax story. I was not. I knew several young Latter-day Saint men during my years at Notre Dame. They all had imaginary women. One had an out-of-state girlfriend who suspiciously never visited campus. Another claimed to have a wife and kids (marriage at such a young age -- it did seem a bit strange). One classmate, who claimed to be a "true follower of Joseph Smith," told us that he had several wives and a passel of children. Something about doing the works of Abraham. At the time, we were reading books about the social construction of race, gender, and most everything else. With a certain amount of exposure to epistemological skepticism through rigorous courses in intellectual history, it was difficult for us to separate truth from fiction. The Calvinists among us, inclined toward common sense realism, told us that if one could see and touch a girlfriend or wife, we could presume that she existed. Most of us, however, were simply confused and fell for LDS whoppers hook, liner, and sinker.  When the truth came out, we couldn't believe we had been duped so easily.
Since then, I've learned that Latter-day Saints have "a remarkable level of naiveté" because of their "highly idealized concept" of courtship," "lack of significant romantic experience," and disinterest in "physical interaction." (The latter explains why BYU is considering scrapping its honor code -- it hardly seems necessary. ) Of course, the 2012 Mormon-athlete-of-the-year would have had an imaginary girlfriend. Hasn't Jimmer Fredette had an imaginary NBA career?

What Forde lacked in his analysis was some historical perspective.  Back in the nineteenth century, while more enlightened Americans were stripping away the miraculous elements from Christianity and articulating more rational forms of belief, Joseph Smith and his followers were telling tales of heavenly personages and golden plates. I'm pretty sure the Mormons also believed that Jesus would return in 1843/1844, and wasn't it the Latter-day Saints who organized séances that tricked millions of Americans into believing that they could commune with their dead? I can't remember whether it was the Mormons or Catholics who circulated stories of miracle cures. Might have been both.

I am pretty certain that it was the Mormons who circulated "anti-Bank-ing co." notes (only the Latter-day Saints would have tried something like that). Perhaps Te'ohad an anti-girlfriend.
Or perhaps a spiritual girlfriend? While Protestant ministers upheld the virtues of monogamy, it was widely reported that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young had dozens of "spiritual wives." Perhaps Te'o courted for eternity but not for time.

Yes, only a Mormon like Manti Te'owould either fall victim to such a hoax or make up such a story. But then it occurred to me. For nearly two centuries, other Americans have portrayed the Latter-day Saints as both unusually gullible and unusually duplicitous (a strange combination). Perhaps, instead, Manti Te'oand his coreligionists are just like the rest of us, both capable of falling for a too-good-to-be-true story and sometimes prone toward embellishment. (I hear that other young Americans find the brave new world of anti-dating confusing.)

At this point, I'm even starting to doubt that the Fighting Irish really stopped Stanford's running back at the goal line last October. Sometimes I think the entire 2012-2013 football season was a cruel hoax.

A final word on Te'o. Over the past two days, numerous journalists have speculated about the case, in particular about why Te'o might have participated in the hoax (if indeed he did). I have no idea, and it's far too early to tell how to assess what role Te'o's religion might have played in any of this. Latter-day Saints encounter the same range of human struggles as everyone else, and regardless of what those are in Te'o's case, I hope he finds some measure of peace from this media firestorm in the days ahead.


Anonymous said…
I have to assume that this post, Mr. Turner, is meant to be sarcastic or ironic in some way. Can you please clarify?
John G. Turner said…
Yes, it was meant to be sarcastic and ironic. I thought it was silly for the sportswriter to suggest that Te'o's Mormon faith led him to invent a girlfriend.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for clarifying; now that I read it again, I can see the sarcasm and irony much better now. If only more writers (including Mormon ones like Joanna Brooks) could see the same silliness in that train of thought.

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