Haunted by History: A Review of "Peculiar People": Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth Century America
According to a recent Gallup poll, nearly 1 in 5 Americans would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate based solely on his or her religion. Among groups identified by their religious affiliation (or lack thereof), only Muslims and atheists were rejected by a higher percentage of those polled.
The media have declared the nation to be in the midst of a "Mormon moment," and with good reason. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are leaders at both ends of the political spectrum in the 2012 campaign season, with Democrat Harry Reid serving as the Senate Majority Leader and Republican Mitt Romney running for President as the official nominee of the Republican Party. Mormons also have prominent places everywhere in American culture from the New York Times bestseller list (David Ebershoff's The 19th Wife) to reality TV (Sister Wives) to Broadway (The Book of Mormon).
While Mormons may be having a moment in American culture, it does not mean that they have achieved wholesale acceptance. The popular depictions listed here—and many more—often focus on aspects of Mormon history, belief, and culture that non-Mormon Americans regard as simply weird. And Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012 have both been fraught with "the Mormon question," which even forced Romney, in his 2007 speech "Faith in America," to ask the public to demonstrate the nation's much-touted value for religious tolerance by not judging his candidacy by his religion. As Romney rightly noted, the American suspicion toward Mormons stretches back into the 19th century.
In "Peculiar People": Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth Century America, J. Spencer Fluhman examines the birth, development, and, in a sense, the denouement of this American prejudice from the birth of Mormonism in the 1820s to the political legitimization of the Mormon community with Utah's admission to the nation as a state in 1896. But more than simply tracking anti-Mormon sentiment, Fluhman convincingly argues that this national intolerance was about far more than the Latter-day Saints' peculiar beliefs and practices. In the early 1800s, the overwhelmingly Protestant American population found itself suddenly faced with the responsibility for choosing political leaders and the path(s) to eternal salvation without interference or guidance. In the face of the radical new freedoms presented by democracy and religious disestablishment, anti-Mormonism was the expression of American "anxieties about the relationship between faith, civic power, and social order" (47). When Americans had to decide for themselves what it meant to separate government and religion—and even what qualified as religion—Mormonism, like many other minority religions, served as a convenient straw man: "through public condemnation of what Mormonism was, Protestants defined just what American religion could be" (9).
Cristine Hutchison-Jones earned her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Boston University. Her research focuses on the cultural and intellectual history of religious intolerance and representations of minority groups in the United States.