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?