Mormons, Cajuns, and Alcohol

By July 11, 2008

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Cajuns of southern Louisiana and the Mormons of Utah were, in general, geographically concentrated, relatively isolated, and “white” (though the “whiteness” varied with the describer). Despite significant differences in their situations, I think the groups shared enough attributes to support some comparative analyses. For example, their respective views on alcohol illustrate how ideology, ethnicity, and economics intertwined between World War I and World War II.

Cajuns in the early 20th century were poor, lived in south Louisiana, spoke French, worshipped as Roman Catholics, and spoke disparagingly of the Yankees or Americans from such faraway places as Dallas and New Orleans. Anglo-Americans tended to stereotype Cajuns as romanticized peasants or “hedonistic bumpkins” and, in some reckonings, placed them “below” African-Americans. Simultaneous with other states’ anti-German and anti-Spanish efforts, Louisiana imposed English as the public language. Further, the 20s and 30s brought roads, oil business, factories, electricity, radios, and tourists, all of which reduced Cajun isolation. Exposure to mainstream culture increased Cajuns’ self-awareness and awareness of Anglo-American hostility.

Mormons already had a well-developed sense of identity and mutual antagonism with the mainstream. Though the intensity had dwindled somewhat, resentments lingered over polygamy, supposed communist sympathies, and Mormon political power. The resurgence of nativism and the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s also indirectly helped Mormonism since many Americans viewed Mormons’ “whiteness,” successful colonizing, patriotism during World War I, reproductive fecundity, and supposed self-reliance as manifestations of Anglo-Saxon merit.

The struggle over alcohol consumption reached a political apex with federal Prohibition in 1918. In this period alcohol’s cultural position assumed very different aspects for Mormons and Cajuns. Mormonism temperance appeared on the books in 1833 but weighed as a guideline rather than a rule—though alcohol faced increasingly strong disapproval through the end of the 19th century. Hoping to curry favor with evangelicals and to weaken alcohol use, the church initially supported state Prohibition in Utah. It backed off, however, to avoid spurring a new anti-Mormon political party and perturbing otherwise Mormon-friendly Republicans. Church opposition to alcohol increased during Prohibition though its statements were sometimes ambivalent about Prohibition itself. The church’s anti-alcohol stance fit in well with Anglo-Saxonist views, which looked askance at “Latin dissipation” (such as that supposedly manifested by Cajuns), the influence of French and German liquor interests, and vitiation by alcohol. After Prohibition’s repeal, some components of grass-roots Mormonism surpassed the institutional church in calling for abstinence from caffeinated drinks and chocolate. Whereas sobriety was adequate for most Americans, the Mormons, recently shorn of polygamy as a social marker, made self-conscious teetotaling a linchpin of their sociological identity.

Cajuns, on the other hand, shifted from social drinking to inebriation as a defining ethnic characteristic. One reason was that as the Cajun identity came to include a lower-class economic aspect, the physicality of Cajun life lent itself to drinking as a display of conspicuous consumption (manifesting physical rather than economic prowess). Culturally foreign visitors and restraints also contributed. Several Cajun folktales speak of besting federal revenue men; Cajun drinking thus became an act of protest. The burgeoning tourism industry brought in outsiders who wanted a good time in Acadiana, and alcohol helped. Whereas the Mormons had responded to criticism by becoming “better” than the media’s portrayal of the mainstream, the Cajuns became “worse.” They acknowledged the Cajun drunkard stereotype and incorporated it into their sociological identity.

Though Mormons and Cajuns were marginalized, partially isolated, and poor in the first half of the 20th century, their relations to temperance and Prohibition differed significantly. The Mormons became emphatically more sober while the Cajuns became emphatically less so. Both trends correlated (one must be careful with definitive causal claims) with media attention that lauded the Mormons and denigrated the Cajuns for their respective uses of alcohol. The complex weave of national discourse, momentum toward assimilation, and the necessities of economic survival contributed to both groups adopting and radicalizing the national conception of their identities.
__________

I’m test-driving this idea without footnotes; I do not thereby imply credit for ideas not my own. One reason for flying naked is to calibrate my understanding of the field. (The other reason is laziness.) Which of the above assertions about and interpretations of Mormonism are not common knowledge (among the Mormon Studies crowd)? How plausible is the idea of comparing Mormons and Cajuns? Are there Mormon/Cajun comparisons already in the literature?


Comments

  1. Are there Mormon/Cajun comparisons already in the literature?

    Edje,

    B. H. Roberts drew comparisons between the expulsion of the Acadians from Canada and the expulsion of our people from Missiouri and Nauvoo.

    Comment by Mark IV — July 11, 2008 @ 8:39 am

  2. This is how Brigham Madsen summarizes Robert’s comparisons:

    The final volume in this early trilogy was The Rise and Fall of Nauuoo, a “companion volume” in “historical sequence” to his book on the Missouri persecutions. In his introduction Roberts discussed at some length the cruel banishment of the French Acadians from their homes in Nova Scotia by British officials during the French and Indian War and then excoriated the victors for their “atrocious crimes” in depriving the French peasants of their homes, a stain “upon the escutcheon” of England. He concluded by comparing this “execration” with the enforced evacuation and destruction of Nauvoo permitted by the “United States, the boasted asylum for the oppressed of all nations.” The only reason for Roberts’s selection of the Acadian story to introduce his volume may have been that Illinois was formerly a French province, but his tactic of attempting to prejudice his readers in advance by the tearful comparison of an Evangeline-type recounting of British cruelty with that of similar brutality on the part of Illinois frontiersmen was a ploy he should have reconsidered. The story, told simply, of the expulsion of the Saints from Nauvoo was dramatic enough in its condemnation of unrelenting persecution.

    Comment by Mark IV — July 11, 2008 @ 8:43 am

  3. Interesting stuff, Edje. It might also be of interest to note that in some anti-Mormon literature of the late 19th century, Mormons were likewise cast as a sort of white trash, below even African Americans.

    Also, on a semi-related note, it is interesting to note that although (as you suggest) Mormons were sometimes lauded for their anti-alcohol stance, many Mormons today use their anti-alcohol stance to set up modern day stories of “persecution.” Just yesterday, the BYU Daily Universe ran a story on religious discrimination and hatred that quoted a student who said he was discriminated against for not drinking while growing up. (I’m completely serious, btw).

    Comment by Christopher — July 11, 2008 @ 10:23 am

  4. Neither Cajun nor Cajuns brings up anything in the Mormon Bib. I think that their are some fruitful comparisons between the two groups, as well as telling differences. Nice post.

    Comment by David G. — July 11, 2008 @ 10:23 am

  5. Mark: I was not aware of the Roberts usage at all. Thanks.

    Christopher: the construction of Mormon and Cajun bodies as white/non-white is, I think, perhaps the most interesting direction for comparative analysis. I have yet to do a side-by-side comparison of late 19C writings, but in reading them independently, I’ve frequently thought, “this sounds like that negative Cajun/Mormon article I was reading last week.”

    As for the persecution: I agree there’s been a shift in the Mormon narration, a la Mauss’s Angel and Beehive. I haven’t noticed alcohol in recent non-Mormon media narration—other than as a neutral to slightly positive description.

    David: What is this “Mormon Bib” of which you speak?

    Comment by Edje — July 11, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

  6. Studies in Mormon History, the big red book gone digital.

    Comment by David G. — July 11, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

  7. Thanks, David.

    Comment by Edje — July 11, 2008 @ 3:08 pm


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