Latino/as and Mormonism: Two Steps Forward; On Ugly Step Back

By May 4, 2009


I?ve been surprised that the following recent events and statements have not received more attention from the bloggernacle. I thought I?d briefly announce and discuss them here, as I think they are relevant both to scholars interested in Mormonism and race/ethnicity and to Latter-day Saints whose lives these events affect in very real ways.

I never thought I would classify Julie Beck?s Relief Society as progressive in any real sense, but two recent events have suggested that such might very well be the case.

Event #1: On April 26, over 1,500 Latina Relief Society Sisters from 32 Spanish-speaking wards and branches in Utah gathered in Utah Valley University?s Institute building for a fireside. Julie Beck and her first counselor, Sylvia Allred, spoke to the sisters in their native language about the unique talents and abilities they bring to the church as Latinas.

Event #2: While not technically a Relief Society event, the BYU Women?s Conference last week included similar outreach to Latina Latter-day Saints. According to the conference program, there were six sessions in Spanish over the course of the two-day long conference. To my (admittedly-limited) knowledge, this is a new development.

Both of these events are significant for a number of reasons. It is probably noteworthy that it is the female auxilliary organizations spearheading this more linguistically-sensitive movement within the Church (if two events held in Utah can properly be classified as a movement). Providing these sisters with opportunities to worship together in their native language is an important development, whether one agrees or disagrees with linguistic-segregation, because it marks a new development within the institutional church?s approach to Spanish-speaking Saints here in the United States. Could this be a preview of things to come? Might we see, for instance, Spanish-language sessions at other BYU sponsored symposia like the Sperry Symposium? What about a regional priesthood meeting for Spanish-speaking males? Could similar events successfully occur elsewhere within the United States? And looking further down the road, might we finally see Spanish (or Portuguese, German, or French)-speaking General Authorities address the Saints in General Conference in their native tongue (thus requiring the rest of us to read subtitles or wear headphones)? How do Latino/a Latter-day Saints feel about such possibilities? What about the English-speaking white membership? As my co-blogger David G. has put it, ?Listening to the voices of our Latino/a hermanas and hermanos will become increasingly important in the decades to come as we learn what it means to be a universal church.?

Additionally, such events almost necessarily bring up the Lamanite question. In fact, the Church News reportedthat at the fireside, ?Sister Beck attached special significance to the fireside because of the Lamanite lineage shared by almost all of the sisters in attendance.? She is quoted as having said:

?I think our purpose (tonight) is to express our appreciation and our great love to the sisters for the contribution they?re making in the building of the kingdom, and to remind them of the great promises that are theirs through the family of Lehi and what promises he was given regarding his posterity.?

Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, none of the Spanish-speaking sisters interviewed for that article noted the Lamanite (or ?children of Lehi?) connection, preferring instead to highlight their Latina identity:

?It?s beautiful to know that this fireside is intended for us as Latina women?, said Deli Villarreal of the Provo Utah Central Stake. ?For me, knowing that we can be guided and receive counsel from a woman like Sister Beck, an inspired person whose teachings I think about all the time, right now I truly feel very important and very proud to be Latino and belong to this Church.?

Such issues, in my opinion, do need to be discussed collectively by both church leaders and those traditionally grouped together as ?Lamanites.? As on scholar recently noted, ?The future of Lamanite discourse depends on much more than the outcome of debates over DNA.?[1] It depends on how the institutional church and its international membership responds (or does not respond) to such debates as well.

Shifting now to a related but separate recent occurrence (ht: T&S Sidebar), I was struck by this statement (found here) from Eli Cawley, chair of the Utah Minuteman Project, on the ongoing debates within America (and now, specifically within the Church) on immigration reform, especially as it relates to undocumented workers who have come here from Latin America.

?The risk that the church runs by supporting illegal aliens is the risk of alienating their own white membership.?

That Cawley opposes amnesty, guest worker programs, and any other sort of immigraton reform outside of sending all ?illegal aliens? back to where they came from (which, Mr. Cawley will be disappointed to learn, is not always Mexico) does not surprise me. But in addressing the Mormon context, his reasoning for doing so is interesting. The issue thus becomes one not about legality and safety or the 12th Article of Faith and obedience to presidents and magistrates, but rather one exclusively about race. While I recognize (or at least hope) that Mr. Cawley?s attitude does not represent the general attitudes of church members in the United States on this issue, I nevertheless think that his comment deserves attention.

What does framing the discussion on immigration in terms of race instead of obedience to law do to dialogue on the subject? In what sense, or to what degree, are Mr. Cawley?s fears shared by church members? Should the Church be concerned about alienating its white membership? How does this fit into discussions concerning whiteness in the Mormon Church? Has the Church?s quiet shift away from positively identifying Native Americans and Latinos as Lamanites affected how some Latter-day Saints see Latinos?

I?m interested in any and all feedback. I would like, however, for discussion to relate to the specifics at hand, and not degenerate into an argument over the right or wrongness of the Church?s recent run-ins with the immigration question. These are very sensitive issues to me (and to many others). Racism will not be tolerated.


[1] John-Charles Duffy, ?The Use of ?Lamanite? in Official LDS Discourse.? Journal of Mormon History 34, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 167.



  1. I have to say, when I read the interview with Mr. Cawley, my initial thought was, If this offends white members, let them go. But frankly, I doubt he?s speaking for anybody but himself and one or two internet trolls. In any event, though, I get the impression that politicians and lobbyists in Utah like to try to speak for the Church. Fortunately, they don?t.Comment by Sam B. ? May 4, 2009 @ 2:41 pm
  2. Ouch. Framing the church?s relationship with Latino immigrants, legal or otherwise, in terms of race strikes me as being a big step backwards. This seems to be our own cultural equivalent to the secession movement in Texas, or the more interesting one from Georgia.I hadn?t thought about it, but if the church is quietly stepping back from absolutist statements about Lamanites=Native Americans, I can see where some who are more given to racist attitudes could feel both threatened by the growing number of immigrants, and emboldened to take a stance like Cawley?s. A recent Newsweek article talked about a resurgence of white supremacy movements since Pres. Obama?s election, and we have all heard about the surge in gun sales directly linked to his election.

    This seems to be a disconnect between basic gospel principles and the actions of church members decrying the church?s stance on illegal immigrants and their status in the US church. Why is it that we continue to encounter those who see gains by others as a loss to themselves?

    Comment by kevinf ? May 4, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

  3. Should the Church be concerned about alienating its white membership?I think it already is. On the subject of gay marriage, we get letters signed by the First Presidency. On immigration, we get a speech by a Seventy known to be a Democrat (Marlin Jensen, for those who don?t know who I?m talking about). I can?t imagine how they could have delivered their message in a manner less likely to influence the heavily-Republican state legislature. Why not have member of the First Presidency or a senior member of the Twelve give that speech? Because that would have attracted too much attention and risked a public backlash. Same thing with the Deseret News? coverage of the detained missionary. Best to gloss over that and not awaken an open rebellion against the brethren.

    But then I was convinced the Priesthood revelation would trigger a mass exodus from the Church too, so what do I know.

    Comment by Last Lemming ? May 4, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

  4. Is their reason for being mildly discreet about the immigration issue concern over alienating white membership, though, Last Lemming? Or concern over alienating Republican, conservative membership? Either way, what does that do to either help or hinder race dialogue within the church?Comment by Christopher ? May 4, 2009 @ 3:25 pm
  5. @ Last Lemming (#3),I?m not sure the incidents you describe reveal a concern about alienating white church members so much as they do a concern about alienating conservative members.

    I don?t think that racism is deeply embedded in mainstream Mormon culture, despite the Church?s past issues with race. Part of this may have to do with the fact that so many white Mormons have lived in majority non-white societies.

    Conservatism, on the other hand, is deeply embedded in mainstream Mormon culture.

    Comment by Steve M ? May 4, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

  6. Thanks, Sam B and kevinf for weighing in. kevinf, your second paragraph articulates what I was trying to get at. I don?t have an answer, and am interested in whether other people see this at play.Comment by Christopher ? May 4, 2009 @ 3:27 pm
  7. Looks like Steve M and I had the same thought at the same time. I think you?re right on, Steve M. I wonder, though, if Eli Crawley is equating white membership with conservative membership. Such an equation is off base, of course, but interesting nonetheless that whiteness in his view appears to encompass conservative political ideology.Comment by Christopher ? May 4, 2009 @ 3:29 pm
  8. Women?s Conference has had sessions in Spanish before ? I don?t know for how many years, not long, but some. A pre-conference interview question addressed to one of the leaders asked how well those Spanish-language sessions had been attended in the past. The leader said she thought they had been well attended. There may have been only 60 women in a session, contrasted with hundreds in concurrent English-language sessions, but, she said, for the women who needed or felt most comfortable discussing the gospel in their native language, that opportunity meant everything. It seemed to be something they were committed to continuing, based on past support.Frankly, I was glad Crawley included the word white in his remark. As far as I?m concerned, that blew his cover. His pretended position ? the pretended position of the entire ?Minute Man? organzation ? was blown out of the cover of law-and-order and dumped into the racist cesspool they?ve been trying to hide for so long. There?s just no excuse for a white supremecist movement, no matter how small, within either church or state.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall ? May 4, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

  9. Thanks for the correction, Ardis. And thanks for addressing the less controversial (but more positive) parts of the post. I know such outreach matters to those Latina sisters able to attend.And I have to admit I too was a little glad Cawley made such a blatantly racist statement, and for the same reason you cite.

    Comment by Christopher ? May 4, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

  10. @ Christopher (#7),I personally think Crawley is just a racist SOB.

    Comment by Steve M ? May 4, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

  11. I agree that avoiding offending very conservative (particularly GOP) members may be part of the reason that the FP position was conveyed largely under the radar, and why the Church has not taken a more active visible role.Perhaps, given that many Church members on the more ?liberal? political side are still healing from the Church?s substantial intervention on Proposition 8, the Brethren do not want politically conservatives to feel that same level of hurt or estrangement, at least for now.

    Or, they may be reaching back to the New Deal and Prohibition days when a substantial portion (majority?) ignored the counsel of the First Presidency regarding the repeal of Prohibition and the well-known, although not officially proclaimed, opposition to FDR and the New Deal. My recollection is that some of the Brethren were dismayed when such a substantial portion of the membership did not follow their lead on this political issue.

    Perhaps by articulating the position in a low key way, this avoided embarrassment when the Utah legislature enacted pretty stringent legislation anyway.

    Comment by DavidH ? May 4, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

  12. One aspect of this harks back to a discussion here in the bloggernacle in the last year or so, about whether or not you identify as Mormon first, American second, or the other way around. Crawley and some of his LDS supporters seem to be putting the American label first, and then are angry when the Church, for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that we have more members outside the US that within it, fails to take than same stance.That brings up the real question, which is what do we do when the Church isn?t meeting our expectations? Do we look within, and see what has changed in us, or do we look outward, and start identifying scapegoats?

    It is also interesting to see these folks also laying the blame for the current economic crisis and the H1N1 flu scare at the feet of illegal immigrants. How they are discriminating between legals and non-legals still escapes me, which gives more credibility to Ardis?s comment about them blowing their cover by making this a racial issue.

    Comment by kevinf ? May 4, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

  13. Just to clarify. The man?s name is Eli Cawley (not Crawley).Comment by Christopher ? May 4, 2009 @ 5:29 pm
  14. Freudian slip, goes so well with Creepy. Apologies all around.Comment by kevinf ? May 4, 2009 @ 5:33 pm
  15. Note: The guy?s name is ?Cawley.? I may have been the one to introduce the misspelling ?Crawley? ? subconscious imagery, maybe? ? but it?s really Cawley.There have been calls from the same group to ?seal the border? to prevent the spread of the flu virus. I suppose they mean ?seal? against both legal and illegal, but they seem concerned solely about the Mexican border, not about the flu sneaking in (as if it weren?t already here) from other directions. Again, their specific call reeks of racism, and certainly demonstrates no great understanding of science.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall ? May 4, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

  16. Re: the RS meetings. I agree that these meetings are significant and do demonstrate that the church is making efforts to give special attention to Latina/o members. My guess is though that these meetings were planned mostly by white members, with little imput from Latina/os, and therefore operate within the ?white space? that Darren Smith talks about. I may be wrong, but that?s my hunch.Re: the Minute Men. Here?s a link to their website. These groups are an important part of movement conservatism in the West, and illustrate how race does play a significant, if mostly covert, role in conservative grassroots organization. It would be interesting to know how many Mormons are actually involved in these groups, and how these LDS negotiate their various commitments.

    Re: the church risking alienating its white membership through its stance on immigration. I?m glad that Elder Jensen made his statement, since we?re able to point to some evidence that the church wants compassion and humaneness to define immigration policy. But the low-profile nature of the announcement, coupled with the church?s silence on comprehensive immigration reform, does indicate that immigration is not high on church leaders? political/social agenda. Honestly though, I find it hard to believe the Brethren aren?t treating it with more urgency simply because they?re afraid of alienating white members, who in my opinion have little imput into what issues the church chooses to officially support or oppose. Coming out strongly for or against immigration reform just doesn?t fall within the same category as the anti-ERA and anti-gay marriage campaigns (unless you?re Don Larsen of the Utah legislature, and illegal immigrants do somehow pose a threat to the family).

    Comment by David G. ? May 4, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

  17. As an aside, I know through my father that the Church History and Art Museum there on West Temple is planning an exhibit on the history of the Church in Mexico. I don?t know much, as I haven?t talked with my folks for a couple weeks. I know that my dad was interviewing some Mexican members trying to flesh out stories that might be highlighted in the exhibit. ~Comment by Thomas Parkin ? May 4, 2009 @ 7:10 pm
  18. David, thanks for the response and thoughtful comments.Re: RS meetings. You are, I am quite sure, right about these being predominantly white-planned events. Sylvia Allred?s position as 1st counselor in the RS General Presidency, however, does mean there is at least one Latino/a voice in the planning process. Of course, if there was a Latino apostle (will we ever see the day?), he could be assigned to oversee such events.

    Re: Utah Minutemen. I know personally at least one LDS member (who I met a couple of years ago at a wedding reception, and who counseled me to avoid ?evil, revisionist history? in my studies (no. seriously)). It would indeed be interesting to get figures on religious affiliation among the group.

    Re: the church?s lack of urgency on the issue ? I agree largely with your thoughts. I wonder, though, if the recent attention that has been brought to the immigration issue within the church might force them to address it more directly. Is there a parallel situation from the church?s past we can look to as a potential indicator of how they might handle this? And Don Larsen is a class A wacko. How the hell do folks like him and Chris Buttars continue to get elected??

    Comment by Christopher ? May 4, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

  19. Thomas, thanks for the heads up. Another positive and noteworthy news item, indeed.Comment by Christopher ? May 4, 2009 @ 7:55 pm
  20. If you?re going to headline two steps forward and one back, shouldn?t those steps be taken by the same people or institution? Just a thought.The interesting development to me, in any case, is E. Cawley?s construction of the anti-immigration position as in conflict with church membership. I suspect that E. Cawley will find that most white, conservative Mormons are less loyal to his movement than they are to their church.

    Comment by Jonathan Green ? May 5, 2009 @ 8:43 am

  21. Is Eli Cawley not a member of the church, Jonathan? Assuming that he is based on his statements, I intentionally chose to use the word Mormonism instead of the LDS Church or the Mormon Church, etc. in the post?s title. While Cawley?s actions and rhetoric are certainly not on par with official church events in speaking of the actions of the institutional LDS Church, I feel when discussing Mormonism as a movement inclusive of both a hierarchy and lay members and others who identify as Mormons, grassroots activism is perhaps as relevant and important.Comment by Christopher ? May 5, 2009 @ 9:58 am
  22. And unfortunately, lingering racism at the grassroots level might have the same (or a greater) impact based on the attention it receives than the efforts of the church to be more racially, ethnically, and linguistically sensitive. That Cawley?s quote and his group?s activities have generated the publicity they have, and that the fireside and women?s conference have received no attention outside of church-run/church-owned periodicals is perhaps evidence of that.Comment by Christopher ? May 5, 2009 @ 10:01 am
  23. Rereading my first sentence in #21, I realized that it may come across as snarky and sarcastic. Please know it wasn?t intended that way, and I am sincerely asking.Comment by Christopher ? May 5, 2009 @ 10:13 am
  24. Christopher,
    Although I assume he?s Mormon, I don?t know that that has any relevence. To the best of my knowledge, the Minutemen movement is primarily a Texas/Southern Arizona thing (with no significant LDS roots) that has been exported to other Western areas. So Cawley claims to be speaking for members of the Church?the Eagle Forum makes the same claim on a regular basis, as do countless Utah legislators and others. I?m more than happy to blow them off as irrelevant and unrepresentative of Mormonism, of Utah, or of sanity. 

    That is, Mormons can certainly be lunatics; there?s nothing forbidding lunatics from becoming members of the Church or even from claiming that the gospel agrees with them (see, for example, all of the idiots on the recent BCC thread). But just because they?re there doesn?t mean that something about Mormonism encourages them?we notice them because they are part of our group, but if we were in another group, we?d likely be less sensitive to Cawley et al. and more sensitive to the idiots who were in our group.

    Comment by Sam B. ? May 5, 2009 @ 10:24 am

  25. Just because it?s part of a broader movement does not mean we can?t say something about the Mormons who participate in it and their read on Mormonism. Cawley and his group are significant, if only at the level of rhetoric and how they repackage the broader Minute Man message for a western LDS audience.Comment by David G. ? May 5, 2009 @ 10:34 am
  26. See David, I?d disagree that Cawley and his group have any significance; they?re repackaging a Western right-wing movement for right-wing Western Mormons. Yes, it?s interesting to see how they use Mormonism to defend their political views, but only in the same way it?s interesting to see how Gail Ruzicka does, or how Bo Gritz reconciled his Mormonism with his extreme tax-protester views.I think where I?m differing is that I see them with political views and, because they live in Utah, I seem them grafting on ex post religious justifications/explanations. That?s fine and good and all, but has nothing to do with East Coast Mormonism (or California Mormonism, or African Mormonism). It?s interesting in the context of Utah, but I don?t experience the Church or church culture through a Utah lense.

    Comment by Sam B. ? May 5, 2009 @ 10:54 am

  27. Sam B.,I get what you?re saying, but I?m going to have to go with what David said. If Cawley had simply articulated a racist position on the national immigration issue, I don?t think we?d be having this conversation. But he specifically addressed the issue in a Mormon context, predicting what affect it will have on members like him. That is what makes it relevant to Mormonism.

    Comment by Christopher ? May 5, 2009 @ 10:57 am

  28. It sounds like one of the real questions the comments are dealing with is the representativeness of Cawley?s interpretation of illegal immigration as a Mormon, as opposed to just a racial or legal, issue. We know that many of the more conservative members of the church feel uncomfortable with and sometimes even hostile toward illegal immigrants and immigration in general. The issue is how they reconcile these feelings with a sometimes muted church policy that seems to be compassionate towards illegal immigrants. Do they hold their views in open opposition to the church and strive to create an oppositional culture, or do they simply ignore the church?s positions (easily done when these positions are articulated in muted ways which was one of the initial themes of the post). Cawley wants to frame his beliefs in the context of open opposition, while Sam B, in the comments, argues that Cawley?s claims are not representative.Nineteenth Century Western Mormon rhetoric often trended toward insularity. In contrast, there does seem to be a trend in post World War II Mormonism which conflates membership in the church with Americanness, heteronormativity, and whiteness. There also seems to be another strand of thought that trends toward internationalism and even cosmopolitanism. I think persons on both extreme ends of the political spectrum feel uncomfortable with the paradoxical nature of these two Twentieth Century discourses. Cawley articulates one end of the spectrum, but I think that the majority probably live in the middle and choose not to even recognize the tension.

    Comment by Joel ? May 5, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

  29. I get what Sam B is saying. This issue does have relevance for all US Mormons, but it is primarily directed toward a Utah Mormon audience that Cawley feels is receptive to his rhetoric. And as such, it carries greater impact in Utah than perhaps it does in other areas of the country. I don?t see or hear as much of this kind of talk here in the Puget Sound region, although I would be naive to think it didn?t exist. Based on what I read at the recent BCC thread on this, Cawley must be getting positive feedback, as we had at least one commenter who was calling the Apostles and Pres. Monson to repentance over this issue. That is scary.Joel, the isolationist/separateness of 19th century has not gone away obviously. We saw it in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of a few years back, and the number of LDS tax protesters and ultra-right wing groups that seem to have disproportionate representation in Utah.

    Jan Shipps? chronicling of the change of ?boundary maintenance? by members of the church from the community as a whole to individuals is interesting here to me. It would seem that some individuals who are not comfortable with the way the world is going from their perspective may have difficulty maintaining their paradigms by themselves, and they seek out others to help them. Of course that applies to all of us to some extent. But if some individuals self identify as something else first, then Mormons second, they could increasingly find themselves being left out of the greater community, and seek affirmation of their core beliefs in other venues. I believe this is why we have had (and continue to have) Cawley, Gayle Ruzicka, and Bo Gritz amd others of this same ultra-conservative type finding an audience in Utah.

    Comment by kevinf ? May 5, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

  30. Just wondering how, the churches efforts to support non-English language speakers in English speaking areas always gets linked to a discussion of immigration? Could it be that both groups, conservative and liberal, have all ready determined (you might substitute prejudged here) that all Spanish speakers in this country are here illegally so they need to be deported or defended? I see the issues as separate and would not expect one to be a statement about the other, and visa versa. I hope the church leader are wise enough to separate the two also.Comment by JimB ? May 5, 2009 @ 4:04 pm
  31. It gets linked because anti-immigrant factions complain that ?those people? don?t bother to learn English, and that if they were here legally, they *would* learn English; hence, there would be no need for accommodating non-English speakers in the U.S. No, it isn?t logical.Comment by Ardis Parshall ? May 5, 2009 @ 4:13 pm
  32. JimB, what Ardis said.Comment by Christopher ? May 5, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. This post was accidentally deleted. Thanks to google cache, we were able to rescue it, although the last 3 comments were chopped off. Sorry everyone.

    Comment by Christopher — May 6, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

  2. As long as you saved your comment endorsing mine, all is well. 🙂

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — May 6, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

  3. OK now from the Laminite side ie: Native American. I think that the Church has kept a very low profile on immigration due to the Conservative Membership which include White,Spanish,Black and Native American. The concept of White versus all others has lost its strengh due to the fact White is a minority within the Church as a whole. I have lived outside of the US as well as other than Utah in the US and find most LDS or Conservative. As to Cawley he will always be a bigot and look to further his self through his stance. I think the fact the Church has in the past provided for sessions in many Native Languages during RS meetings shows that the womwn of the Church always use thier agency to better the Church and thier communities disoite the public stance of the Church. Sorry if I have made gramatical or spelling errors as my MS affects the use of my hands as well as my brain. I enjoy your post as they always make me rethink my own opinions and refresh my knowledge. Keep up the good work you are young and we older folks had our turn now you must carry the yoke.

    Comment by Angel C. — May 8, 2009 @ 2:27 am


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