What Do Mormons and Southerners Have in Common?

The news has been full, this election cycle, of Mitt Romney’s evangelical problem. The conservative evangelical Protestants who form the core of the Republican Party continue to be wary of Romney’s Mormon faith, and that wariness could translate to a lack of enthusiasm that drives down Republican voter turnout on election day—which could sink Romney’s bid for the presidency.  This evangelical problem is particularly of note in swing states in the South, a red state region that has long been defined by conservative evangelical Protestantism. But as a Southerner and a scholar of Mormonism, I’ve long been puzzled by many Southerners’ suspicion of or even hostility toward the Latter-day Saints. For one thing, the two groups have been fighting the common stereotypes and biases of their fellow Americans for more than a century.
Most recently, the similarities between popular images of Mormons and Southerners have caught my attention thanks to TLC’s reality television line-up. On the surface Sister Wives, the network’s popular chronicle of of a contemporary polygamous family, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a new offering that follows a child pageant contestant and her stereotypically country Southern family, seem to have little in common. But having reality TV shows side-by-side that highlight the weirdest and, in many cases, most laughable practices popularly associated with Mormons and Southerners is just the latest example in a long history of American representations that denigrate the two groups with the same stereotypes. Mormons and Southerners have long been reflections of one another in the American imagination.
The most benign stereotype of both groups is the country hick. We’re all familiar with the image of the Southern redneck –a stereotype that many in rural America have embraced. But Mormons, too, fulfill the role of the rube surprisingly often in popular culture.  In the 1998 neo-noir detective film Goodbye Lover, for example, the lead detective alternately refers to her sidekick, a Salt Lake City Mormon, as “Brigham Young” and “Barney Fife.” Steven Soderbergh’s more popular remake of Ocean’s 11 (2001) featured “the Mormon twins.” The pair, characterized by their immature bickering, first appear on a dirt track in Provo, Utah, racing a souped up pick-up truck against a radio-controlled version of the same. When the radio-controlled truck wins, the losing driver runs over it in a fit of destructive petulance. While the brothers never mention their religion, they—and their obnoxious behavior—are defined by it because of the label given to them by the film’s other characters.
The image of the Mormon hick is not only a contemporary phenomenon. In the late-19th and early-20th century, newspapers regularly reported that Mormons were recruiting among the most ignorant and least respectable Southerners. According to one 1898 article, published in both the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, in the mountains of western North Carolina the people’s illiteracy prevented them from studying the Bible for themselves. As a result, “they bec[a]me indifferent, or else gr[e]w fanatical on unessentials in faith and creed. They therefore provide[d] responsive material for Mormon missionaries.” [1] Another article asserted that the fact that Mormons reportedly gained some three-quarters of their North Carolina converts among mountain people proved that, in that section of the country, “[i]gnorance [wa]s rife and morality at a low ebb.” [2] This image made the leap to popular writing, as in Edward Moffatt’s 1914 comic novel The Desert and Mrs. Ajax, in which the buffoonish Bishop Moroni Sorenson, a Utah Mormon, spoke in “drawling” accents and physically resembled “a hard-faced daguerreotype of Civil War times.” [3] In Mark Twain’s famed travelogue Roughing It, which narrated Twain’s Western adventures in the 1860s, Twain featured a “Destroying Angel” with a crew of “slatternly” wives. But despite his high-and-mighty pretensions, this Angel sported “an unclean shirt and no suspenders” and demonstrated “a horse-laugh and a swagger like a buccaneer.” [4]
While Twain found his Destroying Angel too uncouth to inspire any terror, the fact remains that Twain accepted him as a Destroying Angel who engaged in vigilante justice. In other words, he accepted that violence was a routine part of Mormonism. Such casual representations linking Mormonism and violence have persisted into the present, and not just in bad re-creations of the all-too-real Mountain Meadows massacre. The 1958 Pulitzer Prize-winner for fiction, Robert Lewis Taylor’s The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, tracks the adventures of a group of (non-Mormon) 19th-century gold-seeking pioneers. During a winter in Salt Lake City, the book’s heroes live alongside Mormons who are dirty, uncouth, superstitious, and hypocritical. While only a faction within the community is violent, that faction roams the territory unchecked “to hunt down and murder all backsliders.” The gang leader particularly enjoys punishing recalcitrant women: “Somebody said he seemed to relish it, being uncommonly religious even for a Mormon, and would grow flushed and sweaty, while shouting prayer aloud in a kind of frenzy as the naked women twisted and screamed. But when it was over, he was limp and loose, as if he had really driven the devil out. Most everybody was afraid of him, he was so religious.” [5] The Gentile heroes barely escape Salt Lake City with their lives, leaving it in “the Dark Ages” under the threats of “the long arm of Sanctimony.” [6] During the same period, movie audiences were thrilling to Robert Mitchum’s terrifying depictions of psychopathic Bible-quoting Southerners in the classic films The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962).
But I must say that my personal favorite (if you can call it that) characterization of Mormons using what I grew up identifying as Southern stereotypes is Messenger of Death, a 1988 film vehicle for action star Charles Bronson. The movie is a Mormon Deliverance populated by Hatfields and McCoys—members of rival polygamous sects led by two brothers. (Bronson refers to them simply as “Mormons” throughout much of the movie, without regard for the difference between the members of the Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints and its fundamentalist offshoots.) In a clear reference to the same supposed band of 19th-century Mormon secret police referenced by Twain and Taylor, both factions revere the image of an Avenging Angel and practice a religion of retribution and blood. After the murder of several polygamous wives and children—filmed in gory detail—one of the patriarchs, believing that his rival ordered the murders, leads a number of men to attack his brother’s compound. They are enacting their doctrine, which one leader preached early in the film: “Though the anti-Christ comes in the guise of a friend—in the guise of your brother!—you must recognize him and smite him! Your own brother—smite him! Annihilate him! Obliterate him from the face of the earth and all his progeny!” In the end, both brothers are killed along with a number of their followers. While the story concludes with Bronson proving that someone outside the “Mormon” communities paid to have the women and children killed in order to turn the polygamists against each other, the conclusion was far less compelling than the brutal Mormon clan warfare that was so easily sparked and that threatened innocent non-Mormon bystanders.
Such popular misrepresentations point to other parallels between the two groups. Stereotypes of Southern evangelical Christians and Mormons alike are built on the wider society’s criticism of both groups’ perceived clannishness, and of their social, political, and above all religious conservatism. These stereotypes also highlight the distance between both groups and mainstream American culture—a distance that both groups have prized at various points during their history. Perhaps if evangelical Protestants looked at themselves alongside the Mormons through the lens of American popular culture, they would find that they have more in common with Mitt Romney than they thought.

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