American Assimilation

I am an assimilated American. I shop at Trader Joe’s, Target and Costco. I play fantasy football and love watching NFL games. I have degrees from two of the most diverse, liberal, meritocratic universities in the nation. I listen to punk, post-punk, electronica, pop, heavy metal and several associated subgenres. I saw every episode of Firefly, Wonderfalls and Freaks & Geeks when they aired. I’m a big fan of network sitcoms and Hollywood romantic comedies. I read literary fiction (mostly American authors), science fiction and fantasy, and big idea general nonfiction (like Freakonomics or The Tipping Point). I wear jeans and t-shirts at home and dress pants, shirts and ties to work. I like Smashburger and Culver’s and The Original Pancake House as well as a host of non-chain American and ethnic restaurants. I use an iPhone. I’m on Twitter and Facebook and Google+. I read an article or column on the websites of Slate, the WSJ, Mashable, Eater and the NY Times almost every day. I’m a political independent who has voted for Republicans, Democrats and third party candidates. I own a Wii and play Lego Star Wars and watch Netflix on it.

And yet still I was struck when I read these two paragraphs near the beginning of Thomas G. Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930:

After moving to Utah, the Latter-day Saints had built a community which conjoined church and state, politics, the economy, and society into one whole. In that respect, it was much like the sort of community found in the definitions of Martin Bubuer and Robert Redfield, since virtually all aspect of life were shared within the group. The Protestant majority in the United States responded with a series of laws, court tests, and political activities designed to break the back of the Mormon community and reshape it in the image of the remainder of the United States. These culminated in the passage of the Edmnds (1882) and Edmunds-Tucker (1887) acts, which disfranchised all polygamists, took control of Utah’s Mormon-dominated public school system, abolished the territorial militia, disfranchised Utah women, provided for imprisonment of those practicing plural marriage, and confiscated virtually all of the church’s property. They insisted that the Latter-day Saints conform to the norms of Victorian America, which allowed religious influence to be exercised on moral questions but generally interdicted extensive church interference — at least by religions considered deviant — in political and economic matters.

These changes did not come easily. An integrated community with its union of church, state, and society was long engrained in Latter-day Saint traditions. It could not be transformed without creating considerable disruption. Where wer the Saints to find their fixed points in this moving world? By adopting a program-oriented approach? By concentrating on religion, narrowly defined? By stressing the family instead of community? By emphasizing missionary work? Forced by an unfriendly society to substantially modify the Mormon community, how did the church adjust? As the church members sought to redefine their political role, solve economic difficulties, and alter marriage practices, what were the problems? Opportunities? Strains? (4-5)

Of course, we now know the answers to all those questions Alexander raises (here’s a hint: they’re all Yes), and he details how this all plays out in those crucial 40 years that set Mormonism on the same path it is today.

Let me be clear: I have no nostalgia for the period prior to this move towards assimilation. I think the move was inevitable. I like living in the spaces among and between created by this overlapping of Mormonism and America. And while there is friction, I don’t know that it’s that much worse for Mormons than it is for any other ethnic, cultural, political or religious minority. In fact it’s easier for us than for most — it’s just not that hard to be a Mormon American. And I definitely like that I can talk sports and TV with some Americans and tech stuff with others and food and cooking with others and genre fiction and gaming with yet others.

And as someone who is highly invested in the world of Mormon culture, I’m glad that I’m fairly conversant with current forms of narrative art and can move in and out of idioms with fluency.

And yet.

No, that’s not quite right. There’s no “And yet.” I am an assimilated American. Pretty much every American Mormon — liberal or conservative, Utahn or living in the mission field — is, whether they think they are or not. I have no desire to go back to where we were. And I’m not just talking polygamy. I’m talking the whole thing.

So there’s no “And yet.”

What there is, though, is a realization that:

1. Mormonism wasn’t always the way that it is now. I knew that growing up. I knew that before I read this book. But now I really know it. I highly recommend reading this book if you are at all interested in Mormon culture. This is a period that deserves some attention from us as producers of culture.

2. Whatever we are at this point in time and whatever we produce culturally is implicated and compromised. I’m okay with that. But, of course, that means that whatever we produce culturally implicates the broader culture as well. And I’m very okay with that.

Or to put it another way: Guess what America? You created this situation. We tried to leave. You couldn’t leave us alone. Deal with it. We do.

48 thoughts on “American Assimilation”

  1. I think of it from the inverse: that is, that while we as Latter-Day Saints remain committed to the notion of Zion — of living the gospel as part of a comprehensive community — we haven’t yet really had a chance to give it a try. We don’t know what it will look like (as I tried to suggest in my recent post about the artist in the city of Zion). Because of our assimilation, we aren’t yet fully converted.

    And so I would argue that there is indeed a “but” to our assimilation: that is, our underlying belief that necessary and even in some ways desirable as the current situation may be, it’s not where we feel that we’re supposed to end up. And we wonder — or worry, or make guesses — about what that eventual community of Zion will be like, and whether some of the things we’ve become used to in our assimilation will need to be given up in order to get there.

  2. There’s a “but” to every instance of assimilation. What I’m suggesting is that, at least for me, there’s no “And yet” in relation to our past. In terms of projecting the future: sure. Although it’s not clear to me what that means for our current situation or even our lifetime.

    And that doesn’t change that at this point in time we are assimilated Americans, which means we have to deal with that fact. And so does the rest of America.

  3. I guess that what I’m saying is that even if we’re fully assimilated at the level of practice, there’s still that ideal out there that stands as a (possibly mostly theoretical and internal) barrier to complete assimilation. We’re not fully assimilated because we don’t *think* we are. (Which reminds me of the one truly telling argument a friend of mine had against being called a Trekkie: “If I were really a Trekkie, would I mind being called one?”)

    I hasten to add that I think I’m in agreement with your basic point. Still, I also think there’s a level at which Mormons also feel alienated from modern American society, in ways that pop up at the strangest times. The fact that the difference has more to do with what we want someday to be than what we are now doesn’t make it any less real or interesting — or less worthwhile as a subject for fiction.

    Which makes me realize that an interesting mirror-piece to what you’ve written here might be one talking about those moments of unexpected alienation. Like the time at an Oregon workshop for high school student body leaders where there was this cool team-building exercise and everyone talked about how close they felt to everyone else there, and how it was different from anything they’d ever experienced before, and I thought: this is something that happens to me each month in fast and testimony meeting. Or the bizarre paranoia that manifests itself about possibilities that the Church might again find itself persecuted by the government.

    The truth, I suspect, lies in the tension between these two aspects of Mormon experience: our assimilation and our alienation. Perhaps that’s another zone of the radical middle?

  4. Good post and interesting thoughts, thank you. It left me pondering two things:
    1) would it happen again? Will the church culture be totally different 50 years from now (assuming we’re still waiting by then)?
    2) What about church culture in the countries outside the U.S.? Do we know the difference between inspired, universal church programmes, and stuff members do in USA because that’s the country they live in? For example, Home/Visiting Teaching is about as un-European as it comes and I’ve heard a lot of people criticise it for being such an American thing to do (yet I’ve seen some pretty sweet blessings from VT and I know it works if you do it – even in Europe).

  5. Wm, what do you make of the Pew Forum’s report that almost half of Mormons living outside the West say that all or most of their friends are fellow Mormons? Doesn’t that imply a degree to which we haven’t yet assimilated? (I.e., we may look like “regular” Americans on the outside, but we’re still not making close friendship ties with those outside our faith.)

  6. And yet I’ve always felt like a stranger in a strange land, largely because of my Mormon upbringing.

  7. Inari:

    1) I would imagine so. I don’t know about the timeframe — sometimes epochs attenuate for a while before something snaps. But there’s seems to be some major flexibility in Mormon doctrine and culture that would allow that.

    2) I think that’s a major, important question. And I don’t have any good answers to it.


    I’m unwilling to draw any major conclusions from the Pew Study, but as a reaction: well, yeah. The same is true of most other assimilated groups. And the interactions among Mormon friends revolve around structures that are very American. And, in my experience, Mormons are insular, but they are insular inside the class systems they inhabit. Are there minor exceptions? Sure. But those are all service oriented, which doesn’t make them all that different from any other service-oriented American.

    Adam G:

    Of course. So do I. But that doesn’t mean that our everyday lives don’t revolve around the products of the Mormon assimilation with American — in political, social and economic terms, American Mormons are Americans, especially in contrast to what we were prior to the period described in Alexander’s book.

  8. Jonathan:

    I understand what you are saying. But where there is not assimilation, it’s all a matter of culture. Which works for me. And I think there is value to that. And I think that it serves us best for now — we can compete with others in the cultural sphere for adherents to our lifestyle.

    I’d also note that pretty much every group assimilated into American life feels some sort of alienation. That’s part of being American. I agree that expressing that in fiction is a worthy goal. In fact that’s what my #2 in the original post is about.

    My point is this:

    This assimilation was forced upon us in a traumatic, violent way. We as a people were very successful in the assimilating. Highly successful. Which means we’re fully implicated. We can’t go back. Which means now we need to implicate the broader culture back, especially since, it’s still defining us and hitting us with either the same (or the mirror image) objections that caused the assimilation in the first place.

  9. Let me give two examples:

    Mormons are now considered total prudish Victorians. It was the actual prudish Victorians who campaigned strongest against the Church (chiefly because of polygamy).

    Mormon are now considered teetotalers. It was actually the mainstream Protestants who led the charge when it came to prohibition. Yes, LDS were involved, but there was mixed enthusiasm among Mormons on the issue.

    So mainstream America forced us into a certain mode. And then changed the game on us. And then accuses us of what it had coerced us into in the first place. That’s tragically hilarious.

  10. “It was actually the mainstream Protestants who led the charge when it came to prohibition. Yes, LDS were involved, but there was mixed enthusiasm among Mormons on the issue.”

    It was the State of Utah that pushed the Prohibition repeal admentment over the threshold, enacting the repeal into law, despite vigorous admonsishments by several of the General Authorities.

  11. So mainstream America forced us into a certain mode. And then changed the game on us. And then accuses us of what it had coerced us into in the first place. That’s tragically hilarious.

    They didn’t force us. We wanted to be liked and accepted. So we went along with the program.

  12. Not true. There was a significant amount of coercion involved. See the quoted section in the original post.

  13. Ah. I get ya, now.

    Yes. Mormons, in a very big way, embraced the meritocratic reformulation and suburbanization and consumerization of American society that happened after WWII and used the common ground created by that to gain further inroads into the educational, political and economic power structures of America. We were/are completely complicit in that.

    It’ll be interesting to see what our response as a people will be if the crumbling of late capitalism accelerates. I would guess that the current structures will be propped up for another few decades, but what do I know?

  14. Utah (Deseret) started petitioning for statehood in 1849. The quest to be assimilated started early. Coercion ultimately worked because the church so badly wanted what was being offered in exchange.

  15. I think, though, that they we’re hoping it would be on slightly different terms than what ultimately happened.

  16. Eugene, I’m not sure I can buy that petitioning for statehood is the same as seeking assimilation, except on the most basic level.

    I’m also not sure I agree that we “can’t go back,” Wm. I think it would be very painful, but it could be done. Remember, the separate society in Utah was essentially created from people that originated in U.S. culture. I do admit that the substantial increase in the size of Mormonism and the increasing unity and complexity of U.S. culture makes it nearly impossible, but I think if the leadership of the Church required it of members, it could happen over a period of time.

  17. My alternate universe version of Mormon history/culture begins with the church promulgating a libertarian theology that posits agency as foundational, while remaining firmly committed to Utah/Missouri as Zion and thus the Perpetual Immigration Fund. Talk about confounding every mainstream political ideology!

    Back in the real world, the church petitioned for statehood half a dozen times, each time sweetening the deal. By 1887, it was proposing its own changes to the state constitution banning polygamy and was paying Washington lobbyists to improve the church’s image. The church started down the assimilationist road a long time ago.

  18. Eugene, I do know enough Utah history to know those facts. And I understand the point that this ended up being assimilationist. BUT, I don’t believe that Church leaders had any intent to assimulate in 1849 — and perhaps not even in 1887.

    It is one thing for Utahns to want to become a state, and quite another for the Mormon community to decide that it wants to be just like everyone else.

  19. Maybe so, but considering the constitutional requirements for statehood, it would have been wishful thinking of a most naive sort. In any case, the question of the extent to which states could preserve their “peculiar institutions” was settled rather forcefully in 1865, and by the jurisprudence that followed.

  20. Becoming a state early on would have PREVENTED Federal interference in the development of an integrated society in Utah/Deseret. The only constitutional basis for Congress enacting laws governing marriage in Utah was that it was still a Federal territory. If it had been a state, the understanding of state’s rights (especially before the Civil War Amendments) would have prevented Edmunds Tucker and its progeny from being enacted. I am not sure there is an existing book length study of the way the larger national sectional tensions over slavery and secession caused the national policies toward the Mormons, including the Utah War and the anti-polygamy crusade that was cast in the post-Civil War era as a “liberation” of Utah’s women from a kind of harem slavery.

    In other words, if the national government had not been driven by the demons created by slavery, its attitude toward Mormons may have been very different. Alternate history SF writer Harry Turtledove, in his series on the premise of “What if the South won the Civil War?” included a long-running Mormon insurgency into the 20th Century brutally suppressed by the frustrated US Army.

  21. Eugene,

    The Church wanted Utah accepted as a state, so that they wouldn’t be at the mercy of Congress to pass laws affecting them. All along the way, their “compromises” were in the interest of trying to preserve as much separation as they could (in the face of far worse legislation that was already being imposed on them) — until the Manifesto of 1890, which was a surrender *and was perceived as such* by Church leaders and the Church as a whole. To call the earlier petitions for statehood “assimilationist” is to fundamentally warp the meaning of the word.

  22. Another excellent story that explores the connection between Mormon polygamy practices and the slavery issue driving the Civil War in an alternative history series is “For the Strength of the Hills” by Lee Allred — originally a Writers of the Future contest winner, later republished in Irreantum, and well worth reading.

  23. Except that the church made an offer in 1849 and Congress didn’t bite. From that point on, going back time and again only strengthened the hand of the federal government. Many religious communities have soldiered on for centuries under far, far worse oppression. The church chose to play ball, to not only to deal with the establishment but to embrace it. Maybe that was the best course. But assimilation was the path deliberately taken.

    (And being in an alternate history frame of mine, what would BYU look like today, I have to wonder, if the church had championed something other than the Mormon values version of a big NCAA state school?)

  24. I’ll agree that assimilation was probably the inevitable result of the historical path taken by the Church from shortly after they arrived in Utah (if not before) — even if they didn’t realize it at the time. All I’m really arguing is that until 1890 — and in many ways, until the “Second Manifesto” period of the Reed Smoot hearings — they were still *trying* for something other than assimilation.

    There’s that telling quote from Judge Sanford on sentencing George A. Cannon in 1888:

    “We care nothing for your polygamy. It’s a good war-cry and serves our purpose by enlisting sympathy for our cause; but it’s a mere bagatelle compared with other issues in the irrepressible conflict between our parties. What we most object to is your unity; your political and commercial solidarity; the obedience you render to your spiritual leaders in temporal affairs. We want you to throw off the yoke of the Priesthood, to do as we do, and be Americans in deed as well as name.”

    The fact that this was only 2 years before the Manifesto suggests to me just how great the perceived gap still was at that time between the Mormons and everyone else.

  25. Was Judge Sanford accurately describing Mormon society or simply articulating widely-accepted stereotypes that persist to this day? Sanford’s list sounds like it was excerpted from “Top 10 reasons Evangelicals won’t vote for Romney.”

  26. Considering that he was chief territorial judge (and called a “moderate” by historians), it seems likely to me that it was at least a fairly accurate reflection of what Gentiles in Utah perceived at the time.

    The key objections here seem to be “commercial and political solidarity.” Were Mormons mostly buying from (and selling to) other Mormons at this time? I don’t know, though it seems likely. Ditto on the political solidarity point. How much of it was “obedience to spiritual leaders” and how much was the natural tendency to band together is probably open to interpretation. Regardless of the cause, though, it’s the unity itself that seems to be seen by Sanford as the major barrier to assimilation.

  27. It wasn’t just natural tendency. The commercial and political solidarity was directly supported by the Church. The book I mention in the original post is mainly about the disentangling of spiritual/doctrinal interests from commercial and political ones.

  28. The original question in this post, though, was about actual assimilation, not perceived assimilation.

    I doubt late 19th century Mormons were actually less assimilated than any other immigrant group of the period. They just attracted more attention for the obvious reasons.

    Garrison Keillor portrays similar conflicts in the “history” sections of Lake Wobegon Days, between those nostalgic for what they left behind, and those who couldn’t leave it behind fast enough.

    A lack of perceived assimilation, on the other hand, gave us the Japanese internment camps.

  29. Maybe. They certainly had religious, cultural, economic, social and political structures that had cohesion on a level and with a degree of isolation that was at high end of the “not-assimilated” curve. Not to mention an ideology that supported the reasoning behind separation.

    I’m not saying that other ethnic or religious groups didn’t also have those elements. But I’m not sure that any of them had them quite as intensely.

    And certainly there were many who wanted LDS, especially younger generation Mormons, who wanted to leave all that behind quickly. That, again, is a major through thread in Alexander’s book.

  30. In contrast to Mormonism in Transition, Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom can be seen as about how the spiritual and commercial became entangled, I think. The solidarity that Wm. mentions in (30) was largely started by Brigham Young, who advocated only buying from fellow Mormons in order to foster economic independence from elsewhere.

    Bro. Brigham’s logic was widely accepted as economically sound–kind of like the assumption we make today that the U.S. needs “energy independence.” The idea isn’t necessarily sound economic theory, but it is a common part of nationalist politics in many countries.

    In contrast to Eugene’s comment above (15), much of this “independence” logic happened after and in spite of the early attempts to make Utah a state. Like most history, the events never went in just one direction at any point in time.

  31. I think it’s almost certain that late 19th century Mormons were less assimilated than other immigrant groups of the period, because they had something other immigrant groups did not possess: a place distinctively their own, largely under their control (economic if not political), with an established hierarchy and an ideology.

    I also find it interesting that you’re comparing them to “other immigrant groups,” considering that despite a substantial number of European immigrants, Mormons weren’t in essence an immigrant population. They hadn’t come from a foreign place to settle in America, but rather had started in America and managed to make themselves a foreign population within its territories: a rather startling accomplishment, and one without parallel in American history so far as I know (unless you count the Civil War). Given that context, I wonder if “assimilation” is even the right word to use.

    While I agree that there’s a difference between perceived and actual assimilation, I would also argue that perceptions are a big part of whether someone is or isn’t assimilated. If you don’t feel comfortable buying or selling to non-Mormons, befriending them socially, voting for them, then you aren’t assimilated, even if (a) you’re part of the same economy, (b) you walk down the same streets, and (c) you are part of the same civil governance. If anything, emotional connections may be more accurate — and more important — gauges than potentially misleading statistics. Along those same lines, I’d argue that the Japanese internment camps were a demonstration that although many Japanese Americans might have thought they were assimilated, it turned out that they weren’t. But at that point we’re getting into an argument about definitions, which are always circular to some extent…

  32. Jonathan (34), to perhaps add a little to your point, the various immigrant groups in the U.S. often didn’t assimilate any better than Mormons did. In NYC, for example, we had various ethnic and foreign-language newspapers into the 1960s. Groups like the Germans, Scandinavians and Italians often took generations to assimilate.

    This is one of the annoying issues with the debate over today’s immigration — the claim that Hispanics are not assimilating, when in fact they are assimilating at a faster rate than other groups have in the past.

  33. To quote from the Utah History Encyclopedia: “The decade with the greatest influx of immigrants to Utah was the 1860s, with the result that in 1870 more than 35 percent of all Utah residents had been born in foreign countries.”

    But the more telling question is why Utahn (so eagerly) integrated into the mainstream of American life only a generation after the Manifesto.

    Brother Brigham’s “logic” nearly bankrupted the state on several occasions. “Self-sufficiency” is one of those “woulda, coulda, shoulda” populist ideologies that is always going to work “next time” (when the revolution comes).

    Orderville is a good example. Like the utopian experiments that preceded it (Fruitlands, Brook Farm), it thrived initially. But by the time my grandmother grew up there, she said that Orderville produced only one thing well: poverty.

    Mormons were motivated to embrace the “American Dream” because it worked so much better. Perhaps that’s why Utah Mormons heartily embraced FDR and the New Deal as well: the status quo wasn’t working.

    Middle-class Mormons during the first half of the 20th century were probably more indistinguishably and unquestionably “American” than now, Romney Senior and Romney Junior being a case in point.

    When I was growing up in New York, Catholic kids were the ones a step out of sync. This was the time of JFK and Vatican II and deep questions of assimilation. The moral issues of the day were primarily Catholic issues.

    Most of the Mormon converts I knew then were disaffected Catholics. In a vigorously evangelical church, demography is destiny. The church reflected Victorian values coming into the 20th century because so many Mormons actually were Victorians.

    With Mormons and Evangelicals harvesting from the same field, a church that appeals to the Glenn Becks of the world will inevitably come to resemble Glenn Beck. Welcome to the Borg collective, where the assimilated are the assimilators.

    Resistance really is futile.

    This lecture by Lewis Lancaster addresses these issues in Buddhist terms. Lancaster argues that for a religion to become truly “international,” it has to strip away the culture confines of its genesis (the Peter/Paul debate).

  34. I am coming late to the party, but–

    I wonder how much the story of Christianity under the Roman Empire could be constructive. Early on, Christians were experimenting with alternate economic arrangements, shunning the courts, and being persecuted to varying degrees.

    Gradually, Christianity turned mainstream-ish to the point that Rodney Stark estimates that Constantine’s conversion may have reflected a growing demographic reality.

    So yeah: the passage of time, growth, and political pressures probably led to extensive assimilation.

    Except that Christian institutions survived when Imperial ones didn’t.

    Will Mormonism outlast the United States of America? Almost certainly. What will our church look like by the time the next hardcore state collapses come again? That’s an interesting question.

  35. Card’s Folk of the Fringe tackles precisely this subject. Japanese science fiction and fantasy writers love post-apocalyptic plots where the end of civilization simply makes everything more interesting. Perhaps it’s time to follow Wyoming’s lead?

  36. I have written two post-apocalyptic Mormon-themed stories. I’m hoping at least one of them will see the light of day in the next year or so. And I have more planned in the series (although I’m working on other things at the moment).

    I stopped working on the primary one after reading Folk of the Fringe and being depressed that OSC had got there first, but then I realized that that was a foolish reaction and finished it.

  37. .

    I would like to write a postapoc, but Wm’s convinced me I haven’t read enough in the genre to deign any such thing.

  38. (although I would say that anyone who attempts Mormon post-apocalyptic should at the very least read Folk of the Fringe and A Canticle for Leibowitz)

  39. Few people remember that back before Gerald Lund decided to tackle the Steeds, he wrote a post-apocalyptic Mormon novel (The Alliance). Sadly, I’ve never read it, though I remember that we published two reviews (one positive and one negative) in The Leading Edge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s