What Do Mormons and Southerners Have in Common?

The news has been full, this election cycle, of Mitt Romney’s evangelical problem. The conservative evangelical Protestants who form the core of the Republican Party continue to be wary of Romney’s Mormon faith, and that wariness could translate to a lack of enthusiasm that drives down Republican voter turnout on election day—which could sink Romney’s bid for the presidency.  This evangelical problem is particularly of note in swing states in the South, a red state region that has long been defined by conservative evangelical Protestantism. But as a Southerner and a scholar of Mormonism, I’ve long been puzzled by many Southerners’ suspicion of or even hostility toward the Latter-day Saints. For one thing, the two groups have been fighting the common stereotypes and biases of their fellow Americans for more than a century.

Most recently, the similarities between popular images of Mormons and Southerners have caught my attention thanks to TLC’s reality television line-up. On the surface Sister Wives, the network’s popular chronicle of of a contemporary polygamous family, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a new offering that follows a child pageant contestant and her stereotypically country Southern family, seem to have little in common. But having reality TV shows side-by-side that highlight the weirdest and, in many cases, most laughable practices popularly associated with Mormons and Southerners is just the latest example in a long history of American representations that denigrate the two groups with the same stereotypes. Mormons and Southerners have long been reflections of one another in the American imagination.

The most benign stereotype of both groups is the country hick. We’re all familiar with the image of the Southern redneck –a stereotype that many in rural America have embraced. But Mormons, too, fulfill the role of the rube surprisingly often in popular culture.  In the 1998 neo-noir detective film Goodbye Lover, for example, the lead detective alternately refers to her sidekick, a Salt Lake City Mormon, as “Brigham Young” and “Barney Fife.” Steven Soderbergh’s more popular remake of Ocean’s 11 (2001) featured “the Mormon twins.” The pair, characterized by their immature bickering, first appear on a dirt track in Provo, Utah, racing a souped up pick-up truck against a radio-controlled version of the same. When the radio-controlled truck wins, the losing driver runs over it in a fit of destructive petulance. While the brothers never mention their religion, they—and their obnoxious behavior—are defined by it because of the label given to them by the film’s other characters.

The image of the Mormon hick is not only a contemporary phenomenon. In the late-19th and early-20th century, newspapers regularly reported that Mormons were recruiting among the most ignorant and least respectable Southerners. According to one 1898 article, published in both the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, in the mountains of western North Carolina the people’s illiteracy prevented them from studying the Bible for themselves. As a result, “they bec[a]me indifferent, or else gr[e]w fanatical on unessentials in faith and creed. They therefore provide[d] responsive material for Mormon missionaries.” [1] Another article asserted that the fact that Mormons reportedly gained some three-quarters of their North Carolina converts among mountain people proved that, in that section of the country, “[i]gnorance [wa]s rife and morality at a low ebb.” [2] This image made the leap to popular writing, as in Edward Moffatt’s 1914 comic novel The Desert and Mrs. Ajax, in which the buffoonish Bishop Moroni Sorenson, a Utah Mormon, spoke in “drawling” accents and physically resembled “a hard-faced daguerreotype of Civil War times.” [3] In Mark Twain’s famed travelogue Roughing It, which narrated Twain’s Western adventures in the 1860s, Twain featured a “Destroying Angel” with a crew of “slatternly” wives. But despite his high-and-mighty pretensions, this Angel sported “an unclean shirt and no suspenders” and demonstrated “a horse-laugh and a swagger like a buccaneer.” [4]

While Twain found his Destroying Angel too uncouth to inspire any terror, the fact remains that Twain accepted him as a Destroying Angel who engaged in vigilante justice. In other words, he accepted that violence was a routine part of Mormonism. Such casual representations linking Mormonism and violence have persisted into the present, and not just in bad re-creations of the all-too-real Mountain Meadows massacre. The 1958 Pulitzer Prize-winner for fiction, Robert Lewis Taylor’s The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, tracks the adventures of a group of (non-Mormon) 19th-century gold-seeking pioneers. During a winter in Salt Lake City, the book’s heroes live alongside Mormons who are dirty, uncouth, superstitious, and hypocritical. While only a faction within the community is violent, that faction roams the territory unchecked “to hunt down and murder all backsliders.” The gang leader particularly enjoys punishing recalcitrant women: “Somebody said he seemed to relish it, being uncommonly religious even for a Mormon, and would grow flushed and sweaty, while shouting prayer aloud in a kind of frenzy as the naked women twisted and screamed. But when it was over, he was limp and loose, as if he had really driven the devil out. Most everybody was afraid of him, he was so religious.” [5] The Gentile heroes barely escape Salt Lake City with their lives, leaving it in “the Dark Ages” under the threats of “the long arm of Sanctimony.” [6] During the same period, movie audiences were thrilling to Robert Mitchum’s terrifying depictions of psychopathic Bible-quoting Southerners in the classic films The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962).

But I must say that my personal favorite (if you can call it that) characterization of Mormons using what I grew up identifying as Southern stereotypes is Messenger of Death, a 1988 film vehicle for action star Charles Bronson. The movie is a Mormon Deliverance populated by Hatfields and McCoys—members of rival polygamous sects led by two brothers. (Bronson refers to them simply as “Mormons” throughout much of the movie, without regard for the difference between the members of the Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints and its fundamentalist offshoots.) In a clear reference to the same supposed band of 19th-century Mormon secret police referenced by Twain and Taylor, both factions revere the image of an Avenging Angel and practice a religion of retribution and blood. After the murder of several polygamous wives and children—filmed in gory detail—one of the patriarchs, believing that his rival ordered the murders, leads a number of men to attack his brother’s compound. They are enacting their doctrine, which one leader preached early in the film: “Though the anti-Christ comes in the guise of a friend—in the guise of your brother!—you must recognize him and smite him! Your own brother—smite him! Annihilate him! Obliterate him from the face of the earth and all his progeny!” In the end, both brothers are killed along with a number of their followers. While the story concludes with Bronson proving that someone outside the “Mormon” communities paid to have the women and children killed in order to turn the polygamists against each other, the conclusion was far less compelling than the brutal Mormon clan warfare that was so easily sparked and that threatened innocent non-Mormon bystanders.

Such popular misrepresentations point to other parallels between the two groups. Stereotypes of Southern evangelical Christians and Mormons alike are built on the wider society’s criticism of both groups’ perceived clannishness, and of their social, political, and above all religious conservatism. These stereotypes also highlight the distance between both groups and mainstream American culture—a distance that both groups have prized at various points during their history. Perhaps if evangelical Protestants looked at themselves alongside the Mormons through the lens of American popular culture, they would find that they have more in common with Mitt Romney than they thought.




[1] Chicago Tribune, “Of Interest from Exchanges: North Carolina’s 500,000 Illiterates—Good Chance to Introduce the French School System for Adults,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 21, 1898. Reprinted from New York Times.

[2] Chicago Tribune, “Bad As Barbarians: Peculiar Traffic among the Mountains of North Carolina,”  June 12, 1892. Mormon missionaries were also reported to target ignorant and superstitious populations overseas—peasants and laborers in Europe, and native populations in Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific.

[3] (New York: Moffatt, Yard, and Company, 1914), 180–84 and 178.

[4] (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1873), 106–107.

[5] (New York: Doubleday, 1958), 330.

[6] Ibid., 345–46.

  • Paul 2

    Don’t forget about Fletch!

  • http://essayforce.com/ http://essayforce.com/

    The idea behind this article is excellent, and for me the first item is the real gem here: most of the people spend their entire lives only consuming what is created by others, and creating nothing themselves–or never sharing what they create, which is better than not creating at all, though not the best they could do.

    • Tracy Gross

      As a Southerner and a Christian I am offended by your (&the author’s) comment. Romney is NOT in trouble in the South, his most difficult states are NORTH of the Mason Dixon line. We are well familiar with Mormons, there are plenty of Mormon churches in the South, it’s Romney’s pro-abortion, pro- gay marriage support in the past that makes southerners doubtful of Romney. I’m all ways amused by how backward and “ignrnt” the intelligensia in the MSM thinks we are, “Oh, wait! That would mean they’re biased & we all know that ainy’ so!”

  • http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com E B

    Yup. The media likes to sway public opinion. The media is playing us for fools. They question Romney about why he doesn’t provide details for his plan, when he does that all the time (see his website) and they don’t report it. They label him flip-flopper when Obama shifts positions more often than Romney does. They don’t want Americans to learn about Romney as a more than competent candidate for president. On the other hand, they help Obama cover up his failures such as Fast and Furious, Libya, economic numbers, the results of his policies and programs, etc. If Obama were Bush, we wouldn’t be able to escape daily running totals of the deficit and unemployment on the front page. Yet Obama’s numbers are far worse!

    Read both sides for balanced coverage because it sure doesn’t exist in one place and both sides leave stuff out. How can you make an informed opinion on any topic if you only consider one point of view? You can’t. Thanks for listening.

  • http://not-atamelion.blogspot.com Michael H.

    While there’s already been much ink spilled about it, I’m surprised that you didn’t bring up the Book of Mormon musical. While the Mormons are excessively nice in the show -definitely not barbaric- it is also a prominent example of the “Mormons are ignorant, naive, and not world-savvy” trope. They’re rubes, but they’re nice ones with clean white shirts, sobriety, and immaculate tongues.

    • Mike Bennion

      I have often wondered why some believe profanity necessary to be world-savvy.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peculiarpeople Cristine Hutchison-Jones

    @ Paul 2 and Michael H.: You’re both right — those are also great examples of the kind of stereotyping I’m talking about here. But as Michael H. notes about *The Book of Mormon*, these are examples about which much has already been said. I wanted to draw attention to less well-known examples, and also examples that aren’t so contemporary.

    @ Tracy Gross: I’m sorry to have caused offense, which certainly wasn’t my intention. I’m quite familiar both with the diversity of opinion and lifestyle in the South AND with the diversity of opinion among those conservatives who still aren’t sure about Romney. But while it’s true that Romney is likely to carry much if not all of the South, the fact remains that there is evidence that some conservative evangelical Christians — an enormously influential group of voters in the South — are not as enthusiastic about Romney as they might be about a candidate whose religious beliefs more closely matched their own. This doesn’t mean that Romney won’t win in a majority of Southern states, but it does influence the fact that a number of Southern states (Virginia, North Carolina, Florida) are still in play this election season. Some conservative evangelical Christians still have qualms about Romney’s Mormonism, and there are indications that those concerns might keep some from turning out to vote in November. In such a close race, that could very well have a decisive impact.

    • DougH

      I assume the “less well-known” part would explain the lack of mention of Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage.” I was assigned that book in a college class on Mythology and couldn’t get through it, it was so awful.

  • Dave

    what a waste of my time reading this. You’d think every southerner had one tooth and was stupid, and so they should relate to mormons because some idiot made a book or movie that portrayed mormons as stupid. You’re all stupid!
    Southerners, I guess we’re talking southern baptists here, are fine people. Smart, opinionated, passionate, but not stupid. Mormons aren’t violent (geez, look at their history, sure some small group here and there got upset and did something but as a whole.. really??), aren’t stupid (Utah has higher than the average population in the US for college degrees) and I could go on. Just about everyone knows a mormon and would say they are intelligent, family oriented, patriotic, educated. etc. etc.
    Mormons and Southern Baptists have more in common like: we consider Jesus to be our Savior, we care about scripture and let our family values and belief in God guide our lives (and yes, we have a lot in common here).

    To take 20 paragraphs to say we’re similar becuase we’re both viewed as violent, stupid hicks demonstrates a real stupidity in the author.

    • Cristine Hutchison-Jones

      I am not offering an evaluation here of Mormons or conservative evangelical Christians as they are. Rather, I am simply describing common stereotypes about them and suggesting that, just as the two groups have similar relationships to people outside of their communities, they have other things in common. You’ve provided a good starter list of shared beliefs in your comment. My ultimate point is that, given the many similarities — only one of which do I attempt to describe — it is interesting that many conservative evangelicals remain suspicious of the Latter-day Saints.

  • Calin

    I don’t understand why anyone who belongs to any of the groups mentioned would be offended by this article. I am a Latter Day Saint and I found it a great read. Thank you.