Mormon Robots

By May 21, 2013

[Part of the Many Images of Mormonism series.]

In the 2012 US presidential campaign candidate Mitt Romney was frequently described as a robot or robot-like. Mormons in general are sometimes compared to robots, the Borg (a cybernetic species from Star Trek), or Stepford Wives. In this post I will look at some of the context for using robots to describe people, particularly when those people are Mormon. [1]

When I said “look at” in the last sentence, I meant it in the most weasel-wordy sense I can muster: what follows isn’t so much an argument but a first-draft ingredient list for an argument to be made by future historians of representations of religions.

Romney is not the first politician to be called a robot—not even the first Massachusetts governor—nor are Mormons the only religious group so described. [2] That said, I assert that the association of Mormons and robots is “a thing” and not merely a one-off figure of speech. I haven’t counted, but I easily found multiple examples spread over years and in many contexts. [3] There appears to be a non-random phenomenon that calls for explanation.

Mormon Robots are probably not a new idea, but a reimagining of an old one—coerced conversion and dehumanization—which has been associated with Mormonism for most of its history. [4] This latest reimagining probably descends from its nineteenth-century antecedents modulated by, for examples:

  • WWII German “robot bombs” [5];
  • Cold-War Manchurian candidates and Chinese/Korean brainwashing;
  • Margaret Singer, Edward Hunter, and the Robot Theory in the Anti-Cult Movement;
  • Criminal trials with “Robot Theories,” such as for Patty Hearst, the Manson “family,” [6] and others [7]; and
  • Zombie literature.

Perhaps the most significant contributors to popular discourse about anthropomorphic robots are fiction books and movies, which have, so far, kept generations ahead of actual developments in the technology. Isaac Asimov, inventor of the word “robotics,” anticipated some of the Mormon-related themes of the 2012 US Presidential election in his collection, I, Robot.

  • Can a robot with different postulates (ie, religion) but superior technical ability be relied upon? (“Reason.”)
  • Can a robot overcome entrenched technophobia, bigotry, and the uncanny valley (though Asimov does not call it that) and attain elected political office? (“Evidence.”)
  • Is the potential takeover of humanity by robots a conspiracy or the unavoidable result of scattered, independent robots following their programming? (“The Evitable Conflict.”)

In Asimov’s Foundation-series universe, a significant portion of humanity rejects robots (eg, Caves of Steel). The technophobia could be read as a stand-in for anti-Semitism and other versions of religious prejudice. [8]

I haven’t attempted to parse it exhaustively, but it seems that robot metaphors convey five general, not-necessarily-exclusive, not-necessarily-compatible ideas. The target is:

  1. Physically awkward: unable to move smoothly (as in “The Robot” dance)
  2. Socially awkward: tries hard to fit in but seems emotionally fake [9]
  3. Indomitable, invariable: displays machine-like perseverance, strength, or precision [10]
  4. Mass-produced: looks and sounds like “all” the others in Happy Uncanny-Valley
  5. Non-autonomous: unable to think or act for themselves, showing sub-human mental ability or emotional range (usually due to trauma) [11]

I have noticed versions 2-5 applied to Mormons. Romney was probably associated most prominently with #2, the socially awkward robot—though his hair seems to have garnered a fair amount of attention as the indomitable #3. I imagine that Romney’s wealth had as much to do with these characterizations as his Mormonism.

So… why robots? One reason is that robots and their ilk are popular in many contexts. Cylons, the Borg, the Terminator, droids and clones in Star Wars, Transformers, and so on, fill screens and pages. It is not unreasonable that such a wide-spread idea should spill into religious and political spaces.

In many cases, I think using a robot metaphor in an American political or religious context goes beyond simply complaining about single-issue or block voting: it impugns the humanity or American-ness of the target. With individuality widely-accepted as an essential American attribute, being “a robot” carries particularly un-American connotations for hearers across political spectrums. [12]

In some ways, the robot label allows those who favor, for example, labor unions or the military, to criticize a particular collective action without criticizing collectivism itself. _Our_ collective action is a community coming together to stand up for itself; _their_ collective action turns them into sub-human robots.

Robots might also useful for metaphors because they are simultaneously mockable and dangerous. Mormons are presented in some cases, for example, as too unsophisticated and too inauthentic (#1-3) to order (non-alcoholic) drinks at a bar and relax but sophisticated enough to subvert the political process (#4-5).

I think there is probably also an uncanny-valley reaction that makes the robot association close to instinctive: in some ways it is easier to deal psychologically with those who believe and vote differently than “we” do if “they” look and act differently and go to different universities (or don’t go at all).

[1] Shameless self-promotion: this post on Mormons and robots continues a series of posts I wrote a few years ago on similes and metaphors used to describe Mormons. Comparisons included: Hindus in India, cows, Bluebeard, lice, crickets/katydids, mayflies, Happy Valley, horns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), and sundry other organisms.

[2] “Mr. Dukakis [Michael Dukakis, 1988 presidential candidate, Democrat, governor of Massachusetts] continually has to counter charges that he is a robot.” Henry Tatum, “Failures on the Campaign Trail,” The Dallas Morning News, 1988 Oct 12. “When he is as lacking is [sic] humor and oratorical skills as Dukakis, he can seem almost robot-like.” David Broder, “Moving Forward Pays Off for Dukakis,” Ocala Star-Banner, Ocala, FL, 1988 Apr 24 Sun, p 12C. “By contrast, the Bush campaign and its media, shaped by political veteran Roger Ailes, have from the start held to a consistent and unified goal: to paint Bush as a family man with mainstream values and leadership goals, and Dukakis as an inexperienced, left-wing robot who is soft on crime, weak on defense and holds values alien to most Americans.” Jill Lawrence, Washington (AP), “Everyone Has Suggestions for Dukakis,” The Dispatch, Lexington, NC, 1988 Oct 21 Fri, p 5. “Rep. Larry McDonald, D-Ga., has denied a charge by his Republican opponent for the 7th District congressional seat that he is a ‘robot’ of the John Birch Society.” [skip 4 short paragraphs; McDonald, on phone interview:] “If, indeed, I am the puppet of any organization…any person making such a statement should back up that statement…” Marietta, GA, (AP), “Collins Charge Denied,” Waycross Journal-Herald, Waycross, Georgia, vol 59 no 194, 1976 Aug 17 Tue, p 2. Jane Howard, “Forward Day by Day; The 38th First Lady: Not a Robot at All,” New York Times, 1974 Dec 08, Section SM, p 324. Writing about Roman Catholics: “In his business his eye is turned to efficiency and progress, but in religion he is a robot who can only recite the answers he has learned.” James Kavanagh, A Modern Priest Looks at His Outdated Church (Trident), as quoted in John Barkham (Saturday Review Service), “Parish Priest Argues Against Traditional Catholic Teachings,” Eugene Register-Guard, Eugene, OR, 1967 Jun 18, Emerald Empire (Sunday magazine insert), p 16.

[3] Below I provide some links to appearances of robot Mormons. I don’t intend a detailed list, just a general hand-wave in the direction of easily-multipliable examples. Here and throughout I have mostly ignored change over time. Mitt Romney has often been called a robot by political commentators, from partisan humorists (1, 2, 3) to mainstream journalists/op-editorialists (1, 2, 3, 4); Mormons are sometimes called robots, Borg, Morg, or Morgbots (1, 2 (indirectly from our own M Bowman), 3); Mormons, particularly Mormon women, are sometimes compared to “Stepford Wives.” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). A quick Mormon Archipelago search also reveals multiple intra-Mormon usages (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), most recently at Peculiar People. I found a few Mormon Terminators and Cylons, but not nearly as many as the others. (To be clear: there are plenty of websites pointing to the Mormon connections to Battlestar Galactica and Cylons, but not very many descriptions of Mormons as Cylons.) Also: I’m focusing on Mormons and ignoring non-Mormon aspects; my unverified sense is that there are Mormon robots running around the internet than, say, specifically Baptist robots. For the most part, I have not distinguished mainstream commentary from specifically anti-Mormon or former-Mormon commentary.

[4] Nineteenth-century fiction (and non-fiction) about Mormons often emphasized conversion processes or forces such as “magnetic attraction,” kidnapping, mesmerism, and violence. See, for example, Terryl Givens, The Viper on the Hearth, p 150-153.

[5] For example, “English Children Flee Robot Bombs” (London, 1944 Jul 08), Painesville Telegraph, Painesville, OH, 1944 Jul 08 Sat, p 1.

[6] Charles Manson did not directly kill anyone. He was tried along with the ‘actual’ killers, Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel, on the theory that he was part of a conspiracy. Both the prosecution and defense used a “Robot Theory” to, respectively, connect Manson to the killers or to disconnect the killers from culpability. Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi used “robot” eight times in his summation, which was widely reported. Bugliosi’s best-selling book Helter Skelter also used the “robot” characterization. (I have not verified if the subsequent movies also referred to “robots”). Robots in the summation: “when Charles Manson sent his robots out on a mission of murder”; “when he sent his robots off on a mission like that”; “That wasn’t enough that his robots had just viciously cut down and slaughtered five human beings”; “Not just a robot, but a bloodthirsty robot. Bloodthirsty robots.”; “And then silently snaking, snaking out of that residence to go down and get his bloodthirsty robots.”; “The Family, the Family that lived at Spahn Ranch in the very, very, last analysis, was nothing more than a closely knit band of vagabond robots who were slavishly obedient to one man and one man only, their master, their leader, their god, Charles Manson.” The State of California v. Charles Manson, et al., Closing Argument, delivered by Vincent Bugliosi, Los Angeles, California, 1971 Jan 15. The summation was widely reported, eg, Linda Deutsch, Los Angeles (AP), “Prosecution Claims Manson Women were ‘Robots,’” Florence Times – Tri-Cities Daily, Florence, AL, vol 101, no 355, 1970 Dec 22 Tue Afternoon, p 16;  Los Angeles (AP), “Prosecution Describes 3 Women on Trial as Robots for Manson,” Ocala Star-Banner, Ocala, FL, 1970 Dec 22, p 2A. Los Angeles, Jan 12, “‘Robot Theory’ Cited in Defense of Manson’s 3 Co-Defendants,” The New York Times, 1971 Jan 13, p 36. “Jury Deliberations Near As Tate Trial Nears End” (Los Angeles, [AP]), The Press-Courier, Oxnard, CA, 1971 Jan 13 Wed, p 3. Decades later (2008), commenting on the potential for “compassionate release” for Susan Atkins, Bugliosi wrote, “My view is that anyone who opposes her request, other than relatives of the seven Tate-La Bianca victims . . . is either being robotic or extremely callous.” Vincent Bugliosi, in email to James Whitehouse (Atkin’s lawyer), as quoted in Andrew Blankstein and Hector Becerra, “Few back Atkins’ freedom bid,” Los Angeles Times, 2008 Jul 15 (ellipsis as in Blankstein and Becerra).

[7] “Mrs. Neeley’s lawyers have spent the trial trying to prove that she was a ‘robot’ in her husband’s hands and was not responsible for her actions.” Fort Payne (AP), “Mrs. Neelley says she ‘was piece of meat,’” Tuscaloosa News, Tuscaloosa, AL, 1983 Mar 16 Wed, p 13 (page header says “1982”).

[8] I am focusing here on the role of speculative fiction in constructing the perception of robots. It also played a role in constructing perceptions of religious groups. For example, AC Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama features a super-reliable religious character, Boris Rodrigo. Many of his attributes have been applied to Mormons. Arthur C Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973; citations from NY: Bantam, 1990). “To all his shipmates, Boris Rodrigo was something of an enigma. The quiet, dignified communications officer was popular with the rest of the crew, but he never entered fully into their activities and always seemed a little apart—marching to the music of a different drummer. [¶] As indeed he was, being a devout member of the Fifth Church of Christ, Cosmonaut. … Invariably, they were efficient, conscientious, and absolutely reliable. They were universally respected, and even liked, especially since they made no attempt to convert others. Yet there was also something slightly spooky about them. Norton could never understand how men with advanced scientific and technical training could possibly believe some of the things he had heard Cosmo Christers state as incontrovertible fact.” (58-59); “Even in normal times, Rodrigo was a very grave and sober person. … The calm, blue eyes stared into his. He had never known Rodrigo to lose control, to be other than completely self-assured. All the Cosmo-Christers were like this; it was one of the benefits of their faith, and it helped to make them good spacemen. Sometimes, however, their unquestioning certainty was just a little annoying to those unfortunates who had not been vouchsafed the Revelation.” (103); “This situation must have been a shock to Rodrigo, but he would not have resigned himself to passive acquiescence. The Cosmo-Christers were very energetic, competent people. … As for Lieutenant Rodrigo himself, he seemed to regard the possibility of instant apotheosis [ie, death while defusing a nuclear bomb] with complete equanimity.” (208); “Though Rodrigo was not gambling on it—Cosmo-Christers never gambled—he was quite sure that there would be no such instantaneous reaction.” (212); “Lieutenant Rodrigo was a man of almost pathological honesty.” (217).

[9] Emily Belanger discussed an aspect of Mormon social awkwardness and emotions last week at Peculiar People (“Mormon Affect as Seen in Tap Dancing Missionaries and Laughing Robots,” 2013 May 10).

[10] Writing about child eating schedules: “But most mothers are sure he must have food on time. Even if they try letting him go without food or with less than they think he should have at any meal, they don’t have the heart to wait till he is really hungry. They go back to the old way of working on him as if he were a robot.” Garry Cleveland Myers, “Child Training,” Daytona Beach Morning Journal, Daytona Beach, FL, vol 31, no 230, 1955 Sep 26 Mon, p 4. This version of the metaphor also appears in athletics, usually with a favorable connotation.

[11] “Marilyn wasn’t swimming in a straight line now. She was responding to my calls as if she were a robot.” Gus Ryder, as quoted in Marilyn Bell, “Ordeal by Water,” under “Lenten Guideposts,” The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa, 1956 Mar 01 Thu, p 17. “An emaciated 16-year-old girl has been freed from a foul-smelling bedroom where she reportedly was locked up by her parents for four years, police said. [¶] The girl, who neighbors said is named Laura, is 5-foot-2 and weighed 63 pounds when rescued Wednesday. She looked like a ‘dazed robot’ as she was led away by police, a neighbor said.” Long Beach, CA (AP) “‘Dazed Robot’ freed from captivity,” The Bulletin, Bend, OR, 1976 Jun 18, p 17.

[12] Note that the association of Mormons and robots is not confined to the US, so future historians will need to cast a wider net than I have.

Article filed under Cultural History Miscellaneous Popular Culture


  1. Wonderful, Edje! You mention in your last fn that this association is not confined to the US–do you have a few examples?

    Comment by Nate R. — May 21, 2013 @ 8:32 am

  2. Loved this. And this line was both brilliant and hilarious:

    Robots might also useful for metaphors because they are simultaneously mockable and dangerous. Mormons are presented in some cases, for example, as too unsophisticated and too inauthentic (#1-3) to order (non-alcoholic) drinks at a bar and relax but sophisticated enough to subvert the political process (#4-5).

    Comment by Hunter — May 21, 2013 @ 8:55 am

  3. Nate: I have one, from Belgium (ht: Wilfried Decoo).

    Steven De Foer, “Een bliep op het grote radarscherm,” De Standaard, 2012 Oct 29, p 14.

    Writing about a visit to Temple Square in Salt Lake City and a conversation with Richard G Hinckley—all in the context of Romney’s candidacy—De Foer describes Hinckley’s presentation:

    Zodra hij kan stuurt Hinckley, die allerlei belangrijke ambten bekleedde in zijn kerk, het gesprek weg van politiek. Op formele, haast robotachtige toon vertelt hij over de tocht van duizenden kilometers met handkarren die Brigham Young in 1847 leidde van Missouri en Illinois, waar ze vervolgd werden, naar deze plek aan een zoutmeer in Utah.

    When he gets the chance, Hinckley, who held several important posts in his church, steers the conversation away from politics. With a formal, almost robotic tone, he recounts the journey of thousands of kilometers with handcarts that Brigham Young led in 1847 from Missouri and Illinois, where they were persecuted, to this place near a salt lake in Utah.

    The excerpt here omits the “robot-like” description.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 21, 2013 @ 9:51 am

  4. Thanks, Hunter. (And thanks also for mentally inserting the “be” into “Robots might also useful…”

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 21, 2013 @ 10:10 am

  5. Remember also that in the context of the 2012 election, right wing critics characterized the supporters of Romney’s opponent as “O-bots”. Obama’s left wing critics have also adopted the term, and some of his supporters appear to have adopted it as a badge of honor. It has also been used with respect to Oprah’s fans.

    Comment by Bill — May 21, 2013 @ 11:02 am

  6. Good call, Bill.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 21, 2013 @ 11:35 am

  7. I would be more than happy to be compared to a character from Star Trek

    Comment by Bryan Kerr — May 21, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

  8. Edje, this is awesome–both funny and insightful. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — May 21, 2013 @ 10:29 pm

  9. Fascinating. Also, you are a master of the didactic and dialogic footnote.

    Comment by Tona H — May 22, 2013 @ 6:24 am


Recent Comments

Bryan Thomas on 2018 Church History Symposium:: “Though unrelated, does JI plan to put out its annual round up on books scheduled to be published in 2018 or have I missed the…”

Ben on Call for Papers: 2018: “Do these get published anywhere? Is there a conference volume that appears?”

Devan Jensen on 2018 Church History Symposium:: “Regarding the timing, the Church History Symposium is regularly held that week. This year RootsTech joined us. We hope that many people can sample both…”

Dan Scheer on 2018 Church History Symposium:: “Will the proceedings of the conference be available via YouTube or some other media afterwards?”

rich jj on Clipping Words and Pasting: “Do I assume that the scrapbooks mentioned above are from the Journal History of the Church?”

acw on 2018 Church History Symposium:: “What odd timing to overlap with RootsTech (March 1-3), which surely draws some of the same attendees.”