Behind The Zion Curtain: Melissa Harris-Perry and feminist Mormon housewives

The Broadway hit “Book of Mormon” is most incisive in satirising the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ history of racism, placing two Mormon missionaries in an African village. The confrontation between Mormonism and race has come to the fore after Melissa Harris-Perry’s panel seemingly made light of Kieran Romney – Mitt Romney’s adopted black grandchild. Governor Romney’s presidential candidacy in 2012 showed Mormonism rubs up against American insecurities over race, gender, and sexuality. The US left is inclined to see Mormons as an impenetrable conservative bloc: does this matter in the controversy over Melissa Harris-Perry?

Ms. Harris Perry has done more than any other intellectual in US public life to uncouple Mormonism and conservatism – Harris-Perry’s mixed-race background is a rare advantage in this conversation, having a white Mormon mother and being a member of ‘the black church’. She has compared the Republican Party’s relationship with Mormonism to the Democratic Party’s relationship with ‘the black church’ – they are both taken for granted in more ways than one. While anti-Mormonism can by no means be equated with racism against black Americans there is an interesting comparison: both groups have faced discrimination by being excluded from US citizenship. Because of this history Mormonism is both a hyper-American religion that portrays the US as ‘Zion’, but also an ‘outsider’ religion not legitimised in US narratives – Mormonism’s collectivist logic is seemingly antithetical to the Republican Party and US individualism itself. Utah was a bastion of socialism in early 20th century United States; nearly 40% of Utah socialists were Mormon, connecting socialism with the recreation of ‘Zion’ even as the church moved away from economic collectivism. In contrast, Mitt Romney is the perfect symbol of whiteness and conservatism associated with the LDS church’s embrace of business and US citizenship.

Gender has been a crucial tension point between Mormonism and ‘Americanness’. The Edmunds-Tucker Act defined the terms of citizenship for Mormons, criminalising polygamy and allowing Mormons legitimacy while in effect forever defining Mormonism as primarily concerned with polygamy. Women were allowed to vote in the Utah territory in 1870 in an attempt to delegitimise polygamy; they were disenfranchised by the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887, but the legacy of suffrage was strong enough for women to win back the vote less than a decade afterwards. It is clear neither debate on polygamy or women’s suffrage – explored in a recent play about Mormon women called ‘Suffrage’ – were about women’s liberation; the contradictions over almost purely American Mormonism (One song in the Book of Mormon about Mormonism’s US-centred beliefs contains the line “God’s favourite prophet was All-American”) and its ‘un-American’ ideals remains the real issue to this day.

The rise of social media has exposed great diversity in Mormonism and made it impossible to ignore Mormon dissidents. The LDS church’s encouragement of testimonials and record-keeping has translated to the blogosphere – giving Mormons an especially prominent media presence during the 2012 elections. The most famous examples have been the site Feminist Mormon Housewives where Mormon women use blogging to blur the lines between housewife and wage-earner roles, and LGBTQ students at Brigham Young University contributing to the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign against bullying of LGBTQ youth. The church’s role in financing the Prop 8 gay marriage ban in California have created the right circumstances for dissident Mormons to push for more liberal interpretations; LGBTQ Mormons are using the church’s conflicted history on homosexuality to push for their recognition in the church; the feminist housewives are now bringing their movement to church services by wearing trousers instead of dresses.

Why do these cultural moments and expressions of dissidence matter in an overwhelmingly conservative church where 80% vote for the Republican Party? Moments where Mormonism has strayed too far in encouraging socialist collectives and women’s suffrage, or in the other direction with denying black men the priesthood, expose contradictions in how Americans view themselves over class, race, gender, and sexuality. Mormonism’s collectivist mind-set was never completely eradicated. Several public policy responses in the Mormon heartlands of the US West run counter to most US public policy. The most famous example has been Utah’s provision of free housing and case workers to all homeless people as it is cheaper than the medical and policing costs of homelessness – reducing homelessness by nearly 80%.

These contradictions allow opportunities for building coalitions with Mormons: Mormons’ status as missionary Christians – and having historically been denied US citizenship – means they have a vital stake in immigration reform, particularly an amnesty for undocumented immigrants; the feminist housewives have been prominent in the movement to resurrect the Equal Rights Amendment; while the LDS Church has heavily financed anti-gay marriage campaigns, they have backed banning anti-LGBT discrimination in employment and services in Salt Lake City – this could open up opportunities for a federal ban on discrimination. The awkward confrontations US movements have with Mormonism is nowhere more apparent than over gay marriage. The cis, able-bodied, upper-middle class, white men-dominated LGBTQ movement has argued a very conservative case for marriage rights – they have avoided arguing ‘gay is good’ or that gay marriage is good for society. They have been desperate to assuage fears gay marriage will lead to legal polygamous marriages, yet the striking down of cohabitation bans in Utah as unconstitutional has advanced gay marriage – the fight for gay marriage in Utah is now intertwined with its rulings on polygamy.

When asking why coalitions with a group dismissed as a conservative ‘cult’ matter, it is worth bearing in mind (especially for those outside the US) the importance of building coalitions with another group beginning with ‘M’ associated with polygamy – there are more Muslim families in the US practising polygamy than Mormon families. Refusing to engage with Muslim and Mormon women on this issue, or on issues of housework as in the case of Ann Romney, has broader implications in locking these women, single parents, and LGBTQ people out of the rights afforded by marriage. Regardless of the Kieran Romney controversy, Ms. Harris-Perry’s efforts to engage Mormons should be undertaken by all those seeking to advance LGBTQ and gender equality, and discussions of class and race in the US.

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