Today, we are pleased to announce a guest post on our July theme, Mormons and Politics, from Bradley Kime. Here is a brief bio from Bradley:
I just graduated from BYU with a BA in History. My Phi Kappa Phi paper, “American Unitarians and the George B. English Controversy” will be published in Religion in the Age of Enlightenment next summer, and my capstone paper, “Exhibiting Theology: James E. Talmage and Mormon Public Relations, 1915-1920,” is under review. I’ll be heading up to Utah State in a few weeks to work with Phil Barlow on an MA in History.
I just finished reading Thomas Albert Howard’s God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). It’s a brilliant book that touches on JI’s themes for this month and last (politics and the many images of Mormonism). Howard wrote it in response to what many perceive to be the growing trans-Atlantic political implications of American religiosity vis-a-vis European secularity. Howard’s take is that a long-standing elite European discourse on American religion, which he traces through the nineteenth-century and into the twentieth, has “left a sizable mark on the formative presuppositions” behind current policy differences and European perceptions of America. (200) In other words, he argues that elite European critiques of American religion in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries still impact trans-Atlantic political divisions in the twenty-first. And Mormonism seems to have been a particularly consistent target of those critiques. Along with some forays into the secularization and modernity debate, and the retrieval of two sympathetic commentators (Phillip Schaff and Jacques Maritain) from Tocqueville’s shadow, this is primarily a book about negative images of American religion as peddled by its cultured despisers across the pond.
Before I get to the Mormonism bits, criticisms of the American religious scene came from the right and the left—a Traditionalist and a Secularist Critique. Within the former, British Anglicans (including Trollope, Dickens, and Arnold), believed disestablishment and democratization fostered social chaos, sloppy theology and supernaturalism. Continental Romantics believed “worldly practicality” was the “true religion” of Americans, and “money . . . their only almighty God.” (53) And Catholic ultramontanes viewed American religion as a reflection of the anticlerical French and 1848 Revolutions. From the left, various streams of Secularist critique shared a developmental view of historical progress that precluded the persistence of primitive religion—early French social thought, the trajectory of thought from Hegel to Marx, and republican anti-clericalism in the wake of the failed 1848 revolutions, among others. As Howard sees it, these prophets of secularization from Condorcet to Heidegger, perplexed by America’s resistance to their meta-narrative of modernization, disparaged American religiosity without utilizing much empirical observation.
For all of the above, Mormonism epitomized the disastrous effects of American religion. Tory intellectuals responding to Dissenters’ demands for disestablishment in England pointed to Utah as the end product of religious voluntarism. (38) Republican 48ers looking to extend the anti-clericalism and rationality of the revolutions believed that Mormon authoritarianism and supernaturalism provided the “clinching argument for American backwardness.” (128) And French thinkers from Comte to Baudrillard have seen those “miserable anarchists” the Mormons as representative of primitive American culture. (102, 117) Most fascinating to me was the ultramontane critique. Catholic scholars drew an easy line from Wittenberg to Salt Lake City. What American disestablishment and Protestant sectarianism, individuality, and bibliolatry destroyed were real spiritual needs—unity, authority, and objectivity. Mormonism was the inevitable misguided attempt to fill those needs—a Catholic parody posing as panacea for Protestant ills. (71-73)
Recent work (most notably Spencer Fluhman’s) has of course situated negative images of Mormonism within huge and heated nineteenth-century conversations on religion. Howard is tracing how European discourse denigrated religion, rather than how a certain discourse defined religion, as in Fluhman’s case, but it’s not often we get such juicy (albeit small) glimpses of elite European takes on Mormonism—especially where Mormonism functioned as such a salient stand-in for everything that was wrong with American religion itself. Help me out with the historiography here; despite the massive literature on anti-Mormonism, isn’t an extensive Religious Studies approach to European anti-Mormonism waiting to be written?
In any case, Howard’s concluding concern comes back to politics. Current trans-Atlantic political divisions don’t explain themselves. Anti-American sentiment in Europe is still informed, Howard believes, by (among other historical factors) the negative images of American religion generated by European intellectuals during the last two centuries. And regardless of their place on the political spectrum, European intellectuals seem to have found in Mormonism many useful images for denigrating the American religious experiment.
 Although it should be noted that not all nineteenth-century European intellectuals disparaged Mormonism. For some high-praise from Carlyle, see Paul E. Kerry, “Thomas Carlyle’s Draft Essay on the Mormons,” Literature and Belief 25:1-2 (2006): 261-288.
 Howard’s is an intellectual history, not Religious Studies. (He adopts an admittedly problematic and fluid definition of religion as, at times, “efforts to relate to the divine,” and, more often, “evangelical Protestantism.”) So I wonder what a Religious Studies scholar would do with European anti-Mormonism.