For this roundtable, I was asked to give my reactions to the last two chapters: Reeve’s chapter on Mormons and Orientalism and the conclusion. I also want to provide a few thoughts in summation. I’ll try to keep the post relatively brief.
As I was reading the book, one of the things that occurred to me is that the real meat of the book lies in the chapters on Native Americans and African Americans. I agree with previous posters that Reeve has done some excellent work thinking about the racialization of Mormons affected Mormonism’s internal racial politics. At times, however, I found Reeve’s discussion of the conflation between Native Americans and Mormons unsettling. At times, he seemed to be suggesting that the creation of a Missouri county for Mormons was the same as Indian Reservations. Like Christopher Smith, I found myself wanting Reeve to add a reminder that white Mormons retained access to certain rights that other groups did not. They did so because of their skin color.
The last chapter of Reeve’s book and his conclusion examine the comparison of Mormons to Asians and the shift of Mormons from being not white in the nineteenth century to too white in the twentieth century. In his last chapter, Reeve argues that white Americans frequently drew parallels between the Mormon practice of polygamy and the marital practices of Turkey, India, and other foreign spaces. As a result of this association, Mormons were often racialized as “yellow” rather than white because of a perceived over-sexuality. This sexual excess led white Americans to also accuse them of being despotic. Brigham Young’s control over Utah was compared to the sultanates of the Middle East. In the American imagination, hypersexuality was combined with political tyranny. Mormons were also frequently compared to the Chinese, whose population in the California and the American West was seen as a threat to white America. Reeve’s arguments here mirror those in his other chapters. The Mormon adoption of sexual practices that were associated with non-white people rather than the white, middle classes led to their racialization in American population.
The conclusion of his book, however, suggests that the understanding of Mormons as non-white began to shift at the end of the nineteenth century. Reeve argues that Mormons embraced white, middle class American culture in the twentieth century. Mormons became the embodiment of squeaky, clean America. They became, in other words, the epitome of whiteness. Unfortunately, the Mormon embodiment of the values of white American became ominous in the second half of the twentieth century. The refusal of Mormon leaders to allow black Mormons to participate in temple rituals or be ordained to the priesthood led many Americans to see the church as racist, even after the ban was lifted in 1978. Even when they are portrayed more benignly, Mormons are often seen as out of touch and conservative. Although I appreciated the rest of Reeve’s arguments as a scholar, it was here that his arguments seemed the most congruent with my own experiences. As a child, I remember going to sacrament meeting with one of my friends and being surprised to see a black family there. As a non-Mormon growing up in Blackfoot, Idaho, I knew about all of the darker parts of Mormon history: the priesthood and temple ban, the folklore about the cowardice of African Americans in the pre-existence, and the idea that black people would become white in the afterlife. Looking at the African American family, I wanted to ask them: Why are you here? Don’t you know that this is a church for white people? These people believe in a racist theology.
My thoughts were naïve and reflected a lack of understanding of Mormonism and myopia about my own religious tradition’s uneven history concerning race. To defend my past self, I was fourteen. My inability to understand how an African American person could possibly convert to Mormonism is reflective of Reeve’s larger point in his conclusion. In the twentieth and twenty-first century, Mormons have become “too white.” In the American popular imagination, they are seen as staid and boring at best and racist at worst. Reeve ends his book with the church’s attempt to correct this image of Mormons as being too white and too dull with the I’m a Mormon campaign. Elder Berry’s children, he points out, would make a fantastic subject for a TV short trying to convince people of the faith’s new diversity.