Much has been written about the unprecedented wave of Islamophobia currently sweeping the United States, with Muslim Americans falling victim to an ever-increasing number of threats, assaults, and attacks on their houses of worship. The groundswell of hatred has appalled and confused many on the Left, with some wondering how a nation such as the United States — which enshrines religious freedom for citizens in the First Amendment to its Constitution — could ever create an environment that openly oppresses a single faith group.
But if history tells us anything, it’s that religious bigotry isn’t just common in the United States, it’s as American as apple pie. In fact, laudable ideals of religious freedom notwithstanding, our country has actively demeaned, belittled, and persecuted minority faith groups since the colonial era.
The early Puritans, themselves refugees from religious persecution, banned rival faiths and hanged those who worshipped differently; Ominous organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and shadowy political parties such as the “know-nothings” sprung up in the mid-1800s to vehemently oppose Irish Catholics who were thought to corrupt America’s purely Protestant Christian heritage; And anti-Semitism has a long and painful history in the U.S., such as when Americans mocked President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal by calling it the “Jew Deal.”
In all of these instances, the purveyors of vitriol — like the anti-Islam crusaders of today — took pains to present themselves as somehow reasonable, arguing that those they oppressed were simply unfit to participate in America’s shining beacon of democracy. And like their modern counterparts, historical hatemongers often blended various forms of bigotry — fusing xenophobia, racism, and nativism to cast aside groups with “different” religious beliefs and even designate them as belonging to a “lesser” race, irrespective of their actual skin color.
Perhaps most telling is how virtually all of these hate groups inevitably used their discriminatory messages for political and economic gain — tactics eerily similar to the anti-Islam rhetoric currently used by Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and other candidates to scare up votes in the ongoing Republican primary.
With this in mind, there is one particularly unusual historical example that helps make sense of today’s barrage of Islamophobia: when American writers, politicians, and even scientists argued that Mormons — yes, Mormons — weren’t white.
How a white, homegrown faith became a “foreign race”
When former Massachusetts governor and devout Mormon Mitt Romney announced his campaign for president in 2012, political pundits were quick to note his most visibly apparent feature: his blinding whiteness. Tumblr blogs showcased the candidate’s popularity with white people, songs declared him “the whitest white man in the USA,” and cultural commentator Lee Siegel, writing for the New York Times, crowned Romney as the “whitest white man to run for president in recent memory.” In almost every case, his faith was listed as a chief indicator of his extreme Caucasian-ness.
“…there is no stronger bastion of pre-civil-rights-America whiteness than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Siegel wrote. “Yes, since 1978 the church has allowed blacks to become priests. But Mormonism is still imagined by its adherents as a religion founded by whites, for whites, rooted in a millenarian vision of an America destined to fulfill a white God’s plans for earth.”
Indeed, Mormonism, now largely consolidated within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), was founded in the United States by white American Joseph Smith. And while the church has diversified as it spreads globally, its historically white American adherents also remain overwhelmingly white to this day, so much so that the modern church now runs a campaign designed to counter the idea that its U.S. pews lack diversity.
But if Siegel opened up the April 1904 edition of LIFE magazine, he would likely be surprised to find a bizarre political cartoon of a character designated as “Mormon Elder-Berry.” The image depicted a distinctly white Mormon man holding hands with nine children drawn to represent racial stereotypes, collectively described in the caption below as “his six-year-olds, who take after their mothers.”
Taken out of context, the characterization seems odd, if not downright confusing, to modern eyes. But as University of Utah Associate Professor of History W. Paul Reeve writes in his book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, the cartoon was intended to affiliate Mormons with a number of groups deemed “non-white” during the 19th and early 20th centuries — implying that Mormons themselves were not, in fact, white.
“Outsiders suggested that Mormons were physically different and racially more similar to marginalized groups than they were to white people,” Reeve writes. “Mormons were conflated with nearly every other ‘problem’ group in the nineteenth century — blacks, Indians, immigrants, and Chinese — a way to color them less white by association.”
Indeed, the LIFE cartoon is but one example of a decades-long Mormon struggle to be accepted as white in the United States, one that stretched from at least the mid-19th century to the early 20th.
Many initial criticisms of the religion — as evidenced by the mention of “wives” in the cartoon — centered on the community’s onetime support for polygamy, a practice that was endorsed by founder Joseph Smith but embraced by only a small minority of LDS church members (it was also officially renounced by the church in 1890). As Reeve points out in his book, these assertions were eventually magnified and superseded by accusations that Mormons were somehow of another “foreign” racial group, and critics began to speak of a “Mormon race” as early as the 1840s.
One of the more famous examples was a report submitted to the U.S. Senate in the 1860s by military doctor Roberts Bartholow after he visited Utah, where a community of Mormons was in active conflict with the federal government. In his report, Bartholow cited physical traits of Mormons he met such as “striking uniformity in facial expression” — supposedly (and inexplicably) the byproduct of plural marriage — as evidence that their population constituted a new, inferior race.
“[Mormons wear] an expression of countenance and a style of feature, which may be styled the Mormon expression and style; an expression compounded of sensuality, cunning, suspicion, and smirking self-conceit,” his report read. “The yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage; the greenish-colored eyes; the thick, protuberant lips; the low forehead; the light, yellowish hair; and the lank, angular person, constitute an appearance so characteristic of the new race, the production of polygamy, as to distinguish them at a glance.”
The report was subsequently reprinted in a number of respected medical and scientific journals the world over, legitimizing the ostensibly scientific belief in a Mormon race and sparking several other academic articles supporting this view. Over time, these constructed physiological differences melded with existing critiques of Mormon beliefs — many of which ran contrary to Protestant Christianity, America’s dominant religious and cultural group. Nineteenth century Mormon detractors accused the faith of being “incompatible with civilization,” citing the polygamy and, ironically, the tradition’s initial acceptance of non-whites (especially Native Americans) as evidence of a distinctly un-American belief system.
Granted, the unwhitening of non-Protestant religious groups was common practice of the time. Irish immigrants in the 19th century, for instance, were also accused of being less-than-white by ruling white Protestant classes, with many conflating their “race” with their Catholicism, which was depicted as a foreign invader. But the willingness to associate Mormons with these groups was unique in that it took pains to ignore simple facts about Mormonism, such as how it was founded in the United States: An 1870s cartoon by famous anti-Catholic bigot Thomas Nast, for one, depicted an alligator inscribed with Catholic imagery and snapping turtle bearing Mormon imagery crawling atop the U.S. Capitol building. The caption read: “Religious liberty is guaranteed but can we allow foreign reptiles to crawl all over US?”
“As outsiders described it, ‘race’ was also cultural, something that Mormons created in being Mormon,” Reeve writes. “Their fanaticism, perceived ignorance, lower-class status, susceptibility to despotic rule, and ultimately polygamy marked them as inferior … when typically religious markers such as fanaticism or superstition were used to stain an entire group and the implication was that these attributes were somehow inborn in those who were attracted to the Mormon message, the religious bled into the racial.”
The end result was a hateful school of thought with direct parallels to the ideology parroted by today’s anti-Islam proponents, who often conflate race (people of Middle Eastern descent are disproportionately profiled in airports), religion (Islamic beliefs are often described as incompatible with American values), and anti-immigrant sentiment (Muslims, regardless of whether they were born in the United States, are repeatedly accused of being foreign invaders or terrorists).
That time the government tried to ban Mormon immigration
The rise of anti-Mormon thought didn’t just appear out of nowhere, of course. Like most efforts to oppress or expel religious and racial communities, the push to “otherize” Mormons directly correlated with the religion’s rapid growth, which in this case also included controversial political aspirations almost from its inception. Founder Joseph Smith famously ran for president of the United States in 1844 as a way to help legitimize the views of his people; his campaign was abruptly halted when he was killed by a mob that disagreed with his religious and political beliefs.
Yet Smith’s death was predated by an even more explicit rejection of Mormonism by a governmental power. For years, a Mormon population gained traction in Northern Missouri, accruing followers, registering them to vote, and becoming an economic force in the region. Their cultural presence — including Joseph Smith’s vocal opposition to slavery — eventually stoked the ire of locals and culminated in the 1838 Mormon War. After an armed Mormon militia clashed with the Missouri State Guard in northern Ray County, Missouri, in 1838, Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs issued Missouri Executive Order 44, also known as the Extermination Order.
“Your orders are, therefore, to hasten your operation with all possible speed. The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace—their outrages are beyond all description,” the order, which was addressed to General John Bullock Clark, read in part.
In an interview with ThinkProgress, Reeve explained that the extermination order — not to mention the conflict itself — was aided in large part by negative characterizations of Mormons as radically different from their neighbors in ways that bordered on racial. An earlier petition to expel them from Clay county in 1836 refused to designate the American-born Mormons as citizens, describing them instead as “Eastern men, whose manners, habits, customs and even dialect, are essentially different from our own.”
These characterizations, Reeve said, were rooted in the simple reality that Mormons were taking up too much space, culturally and, well, literally.
“When you have enough Mormons reaching the topping point, as more of them came into Jackson County [Missouri] and tipped the balance of political and economic power, that’s about the moment when expulsion will begin,” Reeve told ThinkProgress in an interview. “[They saw that] Mormons are voting as a bloc, they have the numbers, they’re controlling the economics and politics — it’s time to expel them.”
The conflict, which Reeve described as a “land grab” on the part of the Missouri government, successfully drove Mormons from Missouri to Nauvoo, Illinois, one of several expulsions (and wars) endured by the faith group until they eventually settled in Utah. Once there, Mormons continued to clash with regional and federal governments throughout the 19th century, but the most blatant rejection of them as a people came in 1879, when U.S. Secretary of State William M. Evarts asked President Rutherford B. Hayes to limit immigration of Mormon converts from abroad, whom he described as “prospective law-breakers” who engaged in polygamy upon reaching Utah and who were “drawn mainly from the ignorant classes, who are easily influenced by the double appeal to their passions and their poverty.”
The recommendation ultimately couldn’t cobble together a legal justification for excluding Mormon immigrants, but implicit damage had already been done. Just as today’s Muslim Americans are often accused of “Islamizing” America, so too were American-born Mormons framed as an existential threat — racially and religiously — to the soul of the United States.
Mormons become “too white” — but reach out to their Muslim neighbors
The tragic irony of the effort to dismiss Mormons as non-white was how hard the faith group worked to recast itself as white in response.
Although Mormons accepted people of different racial groups into their fold early on, increased attacks on their racial purity chipped away at the faith’s racial self image. With the exception of Native Americans, whom Mormon leaders encouraged their members to marry because they were thought to be another lost tribe of Israel, Mormons slowly shed their inclusive stance throughout the 19th century in favor of a whites-only policy for church leadership. By the time the Civil Rights movement rolled around in the 1960s, LDS members were finally accepted as certifiably white — but now found themselves on the wrong side of the nation’s pursuit of racial justice.
“They stopped ordaining black men into the priesthood, and they stopped letting black women and men into the temples in an effort to claim whiteness for themselves,” Reeve said, speaking of the 19th century. “The irony is that they start participating in the same racial construct that was denigrating them.”
Mormonism’s ongoing struggles with race aside, the church has not forgotten its fight to be accepted in American society — a collective memory that has played an unusual role this election cycle. When almost every Republican governor (and some Democratic ones) called for a ban on Syrian refugees late last year, for instance, there was one notable exception: Utah.
“Utahns are well known for our compassion for those who are fleeing the violence in their homeland, and we will work to do all we can to ease their suffering without compromising public safety,” a statement from the governor read.
Mormon opposition to anti-Muslim bigotry became even more explicit a few weeks later, when Donald Trump announced his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. Within 24 hours, the LDS church released a statement that included a quote from Joseph Smith championing religious freedom as well aa reference to a historic document from the city of Nauvoo that specifically named “Mohammedans” (Muslims) as a group that would be welcome in the former Mormon stronghold.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns,” the statement, which did not specifically name Trump, read. “However, it is not neutral in relation to religious freedom.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, meanwhile, voiced his staunch criticism of Trump by publishing a statement on Facebook that cited Evarts’ failed attempt to end Mormon immigration.
“Utah exists today because foreign countries refused to grant the wishes of a misguided president and his secretary of state,” wrote Herbert, who Reeve says consulted his book in preparation for the statement. “I am the governor of a state that was settled by religious exiles who withstood persecution after persecution, including an extermination order from another state’s governor. In Utah, the First Amendment still matters. That will not change so long as I remain governor.”
To Reeve and to many Mormons, this painful legacy of the Mormon struggle for acceptance — racially or otherwise — contains a number of useful lessons for America’s current struggles with Islamophobia.
“I hope 21st people would recognize the absurdity of suggesting that a predominantly white religious group in the 19th century was somehow not white as absurd,” Reeve said. “If they recognize that as absurd, [then maybe it could break] assumptions about other religious groups are passed about really easily in the 21st century.”
To be sure, the issues surrounding both faith groups are different, and should be viewed within their cultural and historic context. But as Reeve noted, Mormon history does carry a warning for those who refrain from speaking out against efforts to demean a single religious group.
“It’s only a few small steps from those elements of exclusion until you’re back to the 19th century, where a governor is issuing an extermination order expelling people from their homes,” he said.