Identifying with Romney? My Historiographical Rant Against Mormon Ethnicity

By November 17, 2008

Having recently completed my Preliminary exams, and thus ended my self-imposed blogging moratorium, I have decided to put up a first offering in a series of posts regarding the ethnicity paradigm and Mormon identity.

I have a confession to make to our readers at the Juvenile Instructor. Back in the Spring when the Republican primary contest was still in full gear I seriously considered supporting Mitt Romney for president. It was not because I agree with his policies. In reality I found some of his conservative posturing almost nauseating-though I basically ignore campaign platitudes as drastic oversimplifications made only to secure rhetorical and electoral victories. I did, however, feel drawn to Mitt Romney because I felt at some fundamental level that we share the same values system, morality, and faith. At some level our shared sense of Mormon identity allowed me to look past what I perceived as strictly rhetorical and political disagreements. While the primaries eventually solved this cultural-political conflict for me, I think that my inclination to give Romney the benefit of the doubt in the election illuminates why, as Armand Mauss has stated, Mormon ethnicity makes such an appealing categorization. 1) If ethnicity is simply about shared cultural characteristics or self-identity, I am fully convinced that Mormons represent a distinct ethnic group, at least within the “jello belt”-the long corridor of Mormon settlements that runs from Canada down to Mexico. Building from this logic, I have very little doubt that the ties of ethnic identity could have bound 19th century Mormons even more closely in their early Intermountain isolation.

Nevertheless, my rhetoric supporting the existence of Mormon ethnicity also demonstrates many of the fatal flaws within the academic arguments supporting the existence of Mormon ethnicity. Although this essay might sound like a hatchet-job by the time I am done, I would like to posit my admiration for the scholars that I am about to critique. The arguments presented are in no way meant to demean their scholarship which is far more nuanced than I can possibly present in this overly-long academic reverie-I really just disagree with their characterization of Mormon ethnicity. In my mind, the usage of ethnicity to describe Mormons is problematic for three reasons. First, the idea of ethnicity emerged from unpalatable historical circumstances and has been utilized to obscure social inequalities. Second, if the political origin of this academic category does not create enough problems, assumptions of the existence of ethnicity are fundamentally ahistorical and represent a homogenization of different conceptions of identity. Finally, the concept of ethnicity has become a way of oversimplifying and downplaying the important role of theological and socio-spiritual connections in the creation of Mormon identity. In the long run, utilizing ethnicity as a stand-in for religious identity both expands the bounds of meaning for an already charged-idea beyond the boundaries of efficacy, but also downplays and misunderstands the power of theology, faith, and conversion.

As far as I can tell, the first major push for defining 19th Century Mormonism as an ethnicity came from the Catholic Sociologist Thomas O’Dea in his landmark work, The Mormons in 1957. O’Dea was one of the first non-Mormon academics that seriously tried to understand what was at that time still a Utah-centric church. Although he thought it might be most appropriate to define them as a “curious American subculture,” he also argued that that Mormons, “came closer to evolving an ethnic identity on this continent than any other group.” 2)

In making this argument, O’Dea utilized an analytical conception, ethnicity, that appears natural to the modern reader, but that was a fairly recent conceptualization in the American mind. The term “ethnic group” was first utilized by Jewish scholars such as Louis Brandeis and Horace Kallen in the Menorah Journal in the years between World War I and World War II. Scholar Victoria Hattam has argued that these Jewish intellectuals were trying to carve out a space for Zionist politics outside the common rhetoric of the day which revolved around race 3) Even though the idea was created in the 1920s and 1930s, historians such as David Roediger, Jim Barrett, and Matthew Frye Jacobsen have argued that the idea of ethnicity emerged as a popular way of understanding difference in the years following World War II. This shift occurred for several reasons. 4) First, ethnicity affirmed the most recent invocation of the color line between persons of European ancestry and everyone else. The conception of ethnicity obscured the powerful hierarchal relationships conceptualized around race. Before this ossification of the color line occurred, beginning at the turn of the century, immigrants were generally categorized into a variety of races such as Anglo-Saxons, Slavs, Italians, Nordics, etc. This followed the ideas of Lamarckian evolution which theorized how individual genetic and biological adaptations to environment could quickly become part of a particular groups’ genetic code. Thus, for turn of the century thinkers nationality held some of the same genetic connotations as race. Most immigrants were evaluated on a scale between white and black and were accorded privileges in American society based on how close their particular race fell to the ideal, the Caucasian or Anglo-Saxon race. Over time, these immigrants learned that it was in their best interest to distinguish themselves as much as possible from African Americans and Asian Americans even if they occupied the same jobs at times.

Second, ethnicity portrayed the shift in academic thought about race. Since the turn of the century, Anthropologists such as Franz Boaz and Ruth Benedict had been arguing that race was a cultural phenomenon instead of a biological fact.  This cultural categorization of race divided humanity into three great categories of origin: black, white, and mongol. These categories held sway in the minds of these scholars mostly because they represented linguistic and geographical origins. 5) Sociologists at the University of Chicago school began to argue that if race simply represented differences in culture, then it could be eradicated through assimilation. Thus, ethnicity was conceptualized as a category of analysis that would allow Social Scientists to gauge the progress of different groups’ move toward Americanization. 6)

Finally, these new theorizations about race and ethnicity were buoyed up by powerful historical circumstances. The 1924 Johnson-Reed immigration Act had barred immigration from all of Asia and had severely limited immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. Thus, Americans felt less threatened by the raging horde of New immigrants that had produced profound xenophobia during the Progressive Era. African American movements from South to North and West to take advantage of wartime employment made these Black workers enemy number one in the minds of many white workers and leaders. While at the same time the horrors of the Holocaust made the idea of racial persecution based on group identity unpalatable in the minds of most Americans.

Thus, ethnicity became a way for American society to accept immigrants groups as “white” and put them on a path to full acceptance in American society, while at the same time solidifying the divisions between whites and non-whites. For example, we never talk about the difference places of origins from which African Americans came. All Asians are said to look the same even though they have come from vastly different historical circumstances. At some level, I object to the term ethnicity because of these historical and political reasons.

(Tune in next time for my disagreement with Patty Limerick among others)
1) Armand L. Mauss, “Mormons as Ethnics: Variable Historical and
International Implications of an Appealing Concept,” in The Mormon Presence in Canada, eds. Brigham Y. Card et. al. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1990), 332-337; Nevertheless, I do not want to mischaracterize Mauss’s argument. Mauss argues that Mormonism’s international expansion has pushed the conceptual boundaries of ethnicity. I am arguing, in contrast, against the utility of Mormon ethnicity altogether.

2) Thomas O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 116

3) Werner Sollors, “Introduction: The Invention of Ethnicity,” in The Invention of Ethnicity, Werner Sollors, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), xiii; Victoria Hattam, In the Shadow of Race: Jews, Latinos, and Immigrant Politics in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 45-49.

4) ; Matthew Frye Jacobsen, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Barrett, James and David Roediger. “In Between Peoples: Race, Nationality and the ‘New Immigrant’ Working Class.” Journal of American Ethnic History 16 (1997): 3-44.

5) Jacobson, 94-104

6) Henry Yu, Thinking Orientals: Migration, Contact, and Exoticism in Modern America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)


  1. Thanks for this, Joel. This is why we’re so glad you’re part of our blog.

    The literature seems to emphasize the emergence of the concept in regards to Eastern and Southern European immigrants. At what point did ethnicity also come to be used to describe non-white minorities?

    I think you’re right that O’Dea was the first to use the concept to describe Mormonism. Also, if you’re not aware of it, Dean May wrote perhaps the most important explication of the concept for an entry in the Harvard Encyclopedia of Ethnicity. If you’re not already thinking of it, I would encourage you to consider putting these posts together into an article and submit it to JMH or another journal read by Mormon scholars. Although it has declined in popularity, I still see young scholars arguing that Mormons are ethnics.

    Comment by David G. — November 18, 2008 @ 9:48 am

  2. David,

    On an intellectual level, Gunner Myrdal’s landmark work An American Dilemna at times is identified as one of the key works that combined the idea of ethnicity as conceived by scholars in the Menorah Journal and Robert Park’s assimilation theory to apply the concept of ethnicity to non-white minorities. Part of the problem with this rhetorical shift, although really based on liberal thought from scholars like Park, was that it created the “Negro Problem” and “Oriental Problem.” Why didn’t African Americans, Asian Americans, and later Mexican Americans not assimilate the way other ethnic groups could? The answer given by liberal theorists was foreignness, isolation, or pathological cultural issues. Thus we see tragic oversimplifications like the Moynihan Report that tied fatherless Black familial patterns back to slavery. Ethnicity became and has continued to be a way to deny the important structural components of racism in our society.

    Thanks for reminding me about May. I think that he is responsible, more than anyone else for establishing the “ethnicity” paradigm in Mormon Studies.

    I actually also think there might be some room to disagree with me about the use of ethnicity as a way of understanding a certain kind of identity, but I think the main problem with the term is that scholars don’t really think about the term’s genealogy before they use it. It becomes shorthand for conveying a sense of community that they don’t have time or sometimes want to theorize. Like I said in the post, there’s more to come.

    Comment by Joel — November 18, 2008 @ 11:11 am

  3. Joel, as a tangent, do you think the self-referential comments in the late 19th century of a Mormon race tie back to the way O’Dea constructed his narrative?

    Comment by Clark — November 18, 2008 @ 11:32 am

  4. Clark,

    I guess it is possible that O’Dea was thinking about Mormon conceptions of themselves as a chosen race, but I doubt it. By the way, I think that conceptions of a Mormon race at the turn of the century probably are referential to Lamarckian conceptions of the environmental factors of biological race. They were conceiving their ideas in a time when people thought of race as something that resulted not only from long term origins of humanity but also from inherited adaptions to a particular environment.

    O’Dea, in my opinion, was trying to explain a powerful contemporary group identity that he could see among the Mormons by dipping into the Sociological literature on ethnicity which had become academically powerful when he was writing his narrative.

    Comment by Joel — November 18, 2008 @ 11:50 am

  5. Thanks for this, Joel. You’ve really helped tease out and answer some of the questions I’ve had regarding the Mormonism=ethnicity thesis. I look forward to the future posts.

    Comment by Christopher — November 18, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

  6. Were Lamarckian conceptions that widely discussed in 19th century Utah Joel?

    Comment by Clark — November 18, 2008 @ 7:21 pm

  7. Clark,

    I don’t know about Utah, we might have to hear from one of our Utah experts on that one, but the historical literature seems to argue that Lamarck’s ideas were fairly ubiquitous as far as scientific conceptions of race are concerned. The literature also argues that the often religious conceptions of race based on myths like the Curse of Ham were developed, in part, to compete against multiple origins theories like that of Lamarck.

    Comment by Joel — November 18, 2008 @ 9:08 pm

  8. I don’t have anything to add, but I very much enjoyed this post.

    Comment by Ben — November 18, 2008 @ 10:20 pm

  9. Joel,

    All very interesting, particularly since I’m taking a seminar on this topic right now. In the little bit of reading I’ve done on this I have noticed that some scholars apply ethnicity to sects (Quakers, Mennonites, Dunkers); that is they list them as ethnicities. Keeping in mind that sectarianism is the religious act of a group setting themselves apart from the larger community, or choosing to have an “other” or outsider status (Mormons are definitely a sect). Are you arguing against the term generally? What term of group identity ought to be applied to sects like Mormons?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 19, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

  10. Interesting Joel since the accounts from the very early 20th century I can think of offhand seem to be blurring the two.

    Comment by Clark — November 19, 2008 @ 7:17 pm

  11. Steve,

    I think that most scholars who utilize the ethnicity paradigm when studying sects without seriously considering some of the problems with the term. I think that ethnicity is used too much as a noun–something tangible. I will address this question more in future posts.


    Are you talking about Utah now, or the country in general? By the two, do you mean Lamarckian conceptions of race and the curse of Ham? What examples are you thinking about? I could also imagine a scenario where believing scientists such as Talmage or Widtsoe tried to reconcile the two ideas. To make any better observations, I would need to see the texts you are talking about.

    Comment by Joel — November 19, 2008 @ 9:52 pm

  12. […] realized after thinking about my previous post that I did not really summarize what scholars mean by defining Mormons as an “ethnic” […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Examining Mormon Ethnicity (Part II) — December 8, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

  13. […] (and degree sought): Texas Christian University (PhD, History) Favorite JI post: Joel’s Identifying with Romney? My Historiographical Rant Against Mormon Ethnicity Research Interests: racial ideologies and Mormonism (curse of Canaan); Native Americans; American […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The Juvenile Instructor Turns 2 — October 26, 2009 @ 12:34 pm


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