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)