Friday, March 18, 2011

Patrick Q. Mason's "The Mormon Menace"

Patrick Q. Mason is Research Associate Professor at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and Associate Director for Research of an interdisciplinary research initiative entitled Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, Secular.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South, and reported the following:
“All religions are guaranteed by the Constitution, but whenever any system goes beyond common morality, it ceases to be a religion, and should be unceremoniously stopped.”

So said the Yorkville Enquirer, a South Carolina newspaper that was one of the leading voices in the late nineteenth-century South calling for strong regional and national responses to what was deemed the “Mormon menace.” That quote, and the conversation surrounding it on page 99 of my book The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South, captures nicely not only one of the key arguments of the book but also in part why I wrote it.

With backgrounds in both American religious history and peace studies, I’m fascinated with the limits of religious tolerance in America, and especially the historical use of violence in patrolling the boundaries of what was constructed as acceptable practice. On page 99 I’m grappling in particular with the thorny question of religious freedom: if the First Amendment guarantees “the free exercise” of religion, then how could Americans—and particularly southerners, who I mainly focus on—justify repressing Mormonism?

There were many rebuttals to the Mormon position that their peculiar institution of plural marriage was protected by the Constitution. But crucially, as much as Americans despised the particularities of Mormon belief, they rarely claimed to prosecute what was in the head or heart, only what was lived out in society. The most repressive forms of anti-Mormonism were based on a defense of orthopraxis, not orthodoxy. Indeed, it was when religious practice—not belief—became so obnoxious, so beyond the pale, that, in the Yorkville Enquirer’s analysis, “it ceases to be a religion,” and simply became criminal.

Mormons were beaten, whipped, kidnapped, expelled, and killed in the postbellum South not because they read the Book of Mormon or believed Joseph Smith was a modern-day prophet, but because southerners were afraid that LDS missionaries would seduce their women and entice them away to their polygamous harems in the West. If anything, anti-Mormon violence was more sexual than theological. Polygamy thus defined the limits of First Amendment free exercise rights even as it denied its practitioners the ability to claim those rights.
Learn more about The Mormon Menace at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue