Arizona, Race, and Mormon Political Identity

Borderlands History is pleased to host this piece from David G., a PhD candidate at Texas Christian University, who is writing his dissertation on Wounded Knee in American memory. It is cross posted from The Juvenile Instructor, an academic blog on Mormon history which David G., our own Jared T., and others founded in 2007.

In recent years, historians have looked beyond Utah’s borders to Arizona as a fruitful place to explore the dynamics of race, gender, and class among Mormons in the American West. Two works that have appeared of late include Mormons as prominent actors in Arizona’s history, Daniel J. Herman’s Hell on the Range: A Story of Honor, Conscience, and the American West (2010) and Katherine Benton-Cohen’s Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands (2011). Herman examines the Rim County War of the 1880s, which violently drew together Mormons, cowboys, New Mexican sheepherders, Jewish merchants, mixed-blood ranchers, and eastern corporations. Many Mormons, with their “code of conscience,” stood opposed to Southern whites’ “culture of honor” (although Herman is careful to note that these categories were always porous). Benton-Cohen analyzes interracial interactions in Cochise County between Mormons, Mexicans and Mexican Americans, Apaches, Chinese merchants, white Midwestern transplants, white female reformers, Serbian miners, and New York mine managers. She asks how racial categories developed along with national identities in the borderlands. In both works, the authors use Mormons to complicate facile notions of “whiteness.”[1]

Drawing from his research conducted for Hell on the Range, Herman seeks in the most recent Common Place to historicize the political identities of not only the Romneys, but other contemporary Mormon political families with Arizona roots, including the Udalls, Pearces, and Flakes. Herman argues that from the violence of the Rim County War of the 1880s, the Udalls, Pearces, and Flakes forged their families’ political identities for the next century and beyond. David Udall, who opposed the violence and anti-Mexican racism, begat liberal descendants, whereas William Flake and James Pearce, supporters of violence and anti-Mexican racism, had conservative descendants, including Russell Pearce, author of the controversial SB 1070. Herman is careful to note that “out of the fires of frontier Arizona came Mormons liberal and Mormons conservative. Obviously the Arizona experience did not wholly determine their politics, but it made an impression. It became a testing ground, a latter-day Massachusetts Bay, a religious colony that gave issue to powerful (even militant) ideologies and voices, be they anti-communist or environmentalist, anti-immigrant or pro-civil rights.” As for the Romneys, Herman contends that it was their flight to Mexico to avoid prosecution for polygamy that produced their more moderate brand of conservatism.

Herman then gestures toward a broader argument regarding Mormon political identity(ies) being rooted in the Mormon experience with not only persecution, but also “hegira”:

Mormon history explains George and Mitt Romney as much as it explains Udalls, Flakes, Skousens [who was not an Arizonan, but who Herman includes due to Cleon’s influence on the Flakes and others], and Pearces. That explanation owes less to the Arizona experience in itself than to the constant flight and mixed loyalties. Nineteenth-century Mormons loved the Constitution yet sought to separate themselves from Americans. From New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois to Utah to Arizona and California, to Mexico, even to Canada, nineteenth- century Mormons experienced one hegira after another. Add to that the perennial hegira of Mormon missionaries—young men (and sometimes women) who serve two-year stints throughout the world—and one begins to see a pattern.

Perpetual hegira did not necessarily give Mormons “tenacious drive,” as David Brooks suggests, but—in the long run—it gave them the ability to change skins, to fit in, to be liked and to be likable, even (despite Skousenoia) to be moderate. Perpetual hegira tested their loyalties. They were loyal to Deseret, to the U.S., to Canada, to Mexico, to plural wives and plural families, and above all to their church. Having so many loyalties meant disloyalty, too. One cannot be all things to all institutions. With so many loyalties, one must learn to be—to use an appropriate pun—catholic.

Perpetual hegira finally led Mormons into the mainstream. In the late nineteenth century, the church abandoned polygamy and blood atonement (the idea that some sinners so offended God that only violent death could redeem them). Leaders sought stability rather than flight. In the early twentieth century, church leaders went further: they told lay Mormons that loyalty to country was part of being a good Mormon. Though they had sidestepped the Civil War, church leaders encouraged Mormon youths to volunteer for service in World War I. In the 1930s, pollsters found that the majority of Americans viewed Mormonism positively. The church had left behind the fiery preachings of nineteenth-century prophets like Brigham Young and Erastus Snow, who made Skousen look like a mere epigone. In 1979, indeed, the church even separated itself from Skousen himself, assuring Mormons that his doctrines were not theirs. Perhaps one of the last battles in the war between the Skousenoia of old and the new moderation occurred when Mormon voters in Arizona recalled Russell Pearce from the state Senate in November 2011, and replaced him with a moderate Republican.

This is an intriguing argument for the roots of modern Mormon political identities, one that certainly calls for additional research and fleshing out beyond what is possible in an online forum. His contention that Mormons have honed “the ability to change skins” echoes Randall Balmer’s observation that Mormonism has been marked by a “constant process of reinvention.” As Kathleen Flake argues so well in The Politics of American Religious Identity, the Latter-day Saints around the turn of the century were fairly successful at surviving great changes while seemingly remaining the same.  Herman’s piece explores related questions in different contexts and is certainly deserving of attention from scholars of Mormon history.


[1] Jared T. is planning full reviews of these works in the coming months.

Categories: Methodology, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Arizona, Race, and Mormon Political Identity

  1. Jared T.

    Thanks for highlighting this work, David. It’s worth noting that Daniel has posted a follow up that focuses on Miles P. Romney at the History News Network.

  2. Pingback: Borderlands History Blog Turns 1 « Borderlands History

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