The Mormon Path to be All-American: Good for One, Maybe Not for the Other

Today's guest post comes from Stephanie Griswold. Stephanie is a grad student in history at San Diego State University interested in researching new religious movements. She's writing her thesis on the history of the FLDS, their family structure, and leadership changes since the mid 1970s. You can find Stephanie on Twitter @_SGriz_.

Stephanie Griswold

A lot is changing in society in regard to transgender acceptance. Both the military and now the Boy Scouts have officially accepted the open participation of trans people.

With this fascinating step I am reminded of another time when military service and scouting were viable steps towards the acceptance of a marginalized group: Mormons, and in particular, Mormon men. The United States was hostile to the new and American-born religious movement for almost the entirety of its first 100 years. Entire books, such as Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color, have been written about how early Mormons struggled to not only legitimize themselves as a faith, but in nationality, gender, and race. Nativist sentiments lashed out against white, American-born people who followed Joseph Smith Jr. after his establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1930, affiliating their new brand of Christianity as heretical, un-American, and non-white. Mormons, as exhibited in Reeve’s book, were associated with every marginalized group of the time: Asian, Muslim, African American, Native American, and even immigrant.

New York’s Puck magazine, 1884
The main issue provoking such a hostile reaction was the early Mormon principal of plural marriage. Polygamy offended every white Christian sensitivity of the nativist movement, making it much easier to malign Mormons as hedonistic, immoral, and in many ways similar to the stereotyped depictions of African American and Arabs. Mormon men particularly were thought to be white slavers, enslaving white women in their harems. This was so engrained in the perception of Mormons that the Republican Party of the mid 1800s vowed to fight the “Twin Relics of Barbarism” slavery and polygamy. This, among many other pseudoscientific notions of the time, allowed for the othering of the Mormons as a totally mongrel race who merely appeared white, perhaps even making them more dangerous.

Judge magazine, 1882
Polygamy, however, was one of the main tenets of Mormon masculinity. In 1890, after years of state and federal legislation, persecution, and prosecution of polygamists, LDS church president Wilford Woodruff issued the 1890 Manifesto disavowing the principle of plural marriage, not only granting Utah statehood but kowtowing to societal pressures of other white, Christian Americans. This drastically changed accepted constructs of Mormon manhood within the religion.

Mormons worked hard to gain acceptance into the American mainstream and Mormon men were at the forefront of this attempt to gain racial and gender citizenship. The 20th century brought the opportunity for them to gain both racial and gender acceptance while bringing their families and religion with them. In changing the definition of a righteous Mormon man to monogamous and heterosexual, who did not partake in tobacco or alcohol, and was seen active in the community through mission projects they became ideal candidates for acceptance.

After internal steps to gain entry into the American fold, Mormons found external ways to assimilate to American norms. With the establishment of the Boy Scouts of America in 1910 and American entrance into World War I in 1917, Mormon men were quick to sign up. Scouting provided a space for young Mormon boys who had not experienced pre-Manifesto Mormonism to embody religious and patriotic characteristics which would liken them to other white, Christian American boys their age. Older Mormon men had the opportunity to embody those same principles through military service which the church priesthood strongly encouraged, even sending their own sons to serve.

The church made every effort to not only prove that their people were capable of being an active part of American life, but that Mormon doctrine was compatible with American beliefs, especially against the enemy during wartime. By the end of the war, Mormons had largely become accepted as white Americans.

Now, as we fast forward 100 years from American entry into WWI, we see that the military and scouting which assisted Mormons in assimilating into American culture, are accepting another marginalized group: transgendered Americans. Despite this, the LDS Church has questioned acceptance to the LGBT community by those organizations which embraced Mormons in their time of cultural turmoil.

Some of the very reasons the LGBT community are outcasted, particularly by the LDS Church, are some of the accusations against Mormons a century earlier: sexual deviance, societal rebellion, and moral degradation. Though the church has taken care to move toward acceptance, the policies about LGBT issues tell a different story. While the church website proclaims that “same-sex attraction” is not a sin, they distinguish between it and “homosexual activity” and gay marriage especially as an excommunicable sin. They still excommunicate anyone who is unable to curb their “attractions,” even forbidding the children of those “apostates” in same-sex marriages from participating in any church rites until they are 18 years old.

When the Boy Scout recently announced the open acceptance of transgender scouts, a lot of attention was placed on troops in Utah, as the LDS church is the nation’s largest sponsor of BSA troops. Though BSA in Utah says they are totally inclusive already, the issue depends on how the church responds.

In 2015 similar circumstances arose about BSA allowing gay troop leaders.
“Sexual orientation has not previously been—and is not now—a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint Scout troops. Willingness to abide by standards of behavior continues to be our compelling interest.” LDS Church statement on gay participation in BSA troops affiliated with the church.
The “standards of behavior” mentioned in the statement indicate that the church requires abstinence of all members of the troop who are not married, regardless of sexual orientation. Still, gay marriage is not accepted in the church, further maligned through the church’s support of Prop 8.  The church eventually decided to accept the decision to allow gay troop leaders, even in troops they sponsored. One possible reason is their history with BSA and the proselytizing benefits of sponsoring troops which outweighed the LGBT issues at the time. Now, the church says they will “study” the acceptance of transgender scouts as the BSA is supposed to give sponsors the autonomy to organize their troops in a way that lines up with their religious beliefs.

This statement from the church seems to be hedging their bets that if they find the announcement unacceptable, they will be allowed to continue with the status quo or perhaps, for the sake of the boys in question, they will find a way to reconcile their religious beliefs with the needs of transgender youth in their community.


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