Reviling and Revering the Mormons : Defining American Values, 1890-2008
This dissertation examines images of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members, the Mormons, in American culture between 1890 and 2008. The Mormons were doubtless the target of significant religious bigotry in nineteenth-century America, but scholars have generally held that this intolerance softened after the Church Americanized in the 1890s, primarily by ending Church-sanctioned plural marriage. But while scholars see Mormonism as quintessentially American, non-Mormon Americans continue to view it as inherently un-American. This dissertation argues that negative stereotypes of the Mormons persisted in American culture into the twenty-first century, as evidenced by the anti-Mormon rhetoric that beset Mormon Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign. Between 1890 and 2008, non-Mormon Americans represented Mormon religion as fraudulent, foolish, and dangerous and criticized the Mormons' intermingling of faith with politics, business, and sexual mores. American praise for Mormons has remained limited to those events and areas in which Mormons separated their peculiar religious beliefs from their day-to-day actions. This dissertation draws on a variety of primary sources, including works of history, newspaper articles, novels, television shows, and movies, to analyze and compare depictions of Mormons in the context of historical developments in the Church and American society. It identifies five major categories into which images of the Mormons have fallen during the last 120 years. First, negative representations of Mormonism emphasize the falsehood of belief in ongoing revelation, accusing Church leaders of manufacturing so-called revelations to manipulate their credulous followers. Second, Mormon sexual mores including polygamy and the Church's supposed patriarchal oppression of women and homosexuals have come under fire. Third, the Mormon assertion that their Church is the only true religion has combined with popular perceptions of doctrines such as blood atonement to produce stereotypes of Mormonism as inherently violent. Fourth, the Mormons' practice of integrating religious beliefs into politics, economy, and society has fostered accusations of the un-American mingling of church and state. But, finally, Americans have praised Mormonism at moments when Mormons have largely set aside their religion while contributing to national projects, celebrating their role in Manifest Destiny, World Wars I-II, and the Cold War.