There has been lots of comment on Mormons and politics recently. I think the key aspect which is underemphasized in these pieces are the deep differences within Anglo-American cultural streams (as opposed to the short-term reasons for Mormon disaffection from the conservative coalition, such as their internationalism). If you haven’t read Albion’s Seed, you should. If you have read Albion’s Seed, also read The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America, and American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. The Cousins’ Wars in particular frames Albion’s Seed into a global context.
The major insight from these works of narrative history is that a model which incorporates the genealogical origin of Anglo-American subcultures hundreds, and even thousands, of years into the past can be quite fruitful. In David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed the biggest chasm is arguably between Yankees and the Scots-Irish. Geographically distinctive today, even their origins in the British Isles were disparate (mostly East Anglia toward London, and borders of England and Scotland, respectively).
The cultural elites of the Yankees ultimately gave rise to a large portion of the Northeastern WASP ascendancy (including the Bush family) in a direction fashion, or influenced immigrants who assimilated into that subculture (including the Kennedy family). The ~30,000 settlers who took root in New England in the 1630s ultimately became the ~750,000 colonials in the New England colonies at the cusp of the Revolutionary War. The Scots-Irish in contrast are identified not by their elite families, the ‘backcountry ascendancy,’ but their marginalized position as a subculture in comparison to the other Anglo-American streams. When they arrived in the mid-18th century from Ulster and the English-Scottish border region they were termed “crackers.” Here is the Wikipedia entry explaining the origin of the term:
A 1783 pejorative use of “crackers” specifies men who “are descended from convicts that were transported from Great Britain to Virginia at different times, and inherit so much profligacy from their ancestors, that they are the most abandoned set of men on earth.” Benjamin Franklin, in his memoirs (1790), referred to “a race of runnagates and crackers, equally wild and savage as the Indians” who inhabit the “desert[ed] woods and mountains.”
The differences between the Yankees and Scots-Irish redound down to the present. In 1850 Arkansas and Michigan were two states of roughly similar population settled at the same time, by Scots-Irish and Yankees respectively, in the main. While Arkansas hardly had any public schools, Michigan had hundreds. The differences between Yankees and Scots-Irish emerge over and over in the cultural fissures of “mixed” states such as Ohio, Illinois, and Kansas.
How does this tie in to Mormons? The early cultural history of Mormons is directly rooted in the Yankee Diaspora. The Yankees of New England were a fecund lot in the years around 1800, and they spilled over into upstate New York, and across a vast swath of the Midwest ringing around the Great Lakes. The original Mormons were by and large Yankees, and their migration west took them into the lands of the Scots-Irish, who descended upon them like wolves to the slaughter, as was often the case when Yankees faced Scots-Irish in an unorganized fashion.
Below the fold is a post from 2008 that I wrote which I think is now relevant again. So I am reposting it. The Mormon position within the Religious Right is one driven by sincere and genuine alignments of values, but on a deep level it will always be tactical individually, because this is an alliance of two very different groups in their mores and history. That means that one shouldn’t expect individuals from one group to die on the hopeless hill for the other.
Post from 2008:
A few friends have emailed me some objections to the four culture model of american history. In short, though New England Puritans, Highland South Scotch-Irish and Lowland South Cavaliers are reasonable cultural entities which are easy to put a finger on, the Mid-Atlantic is a hodge-podge which to a great extent is simply thrown in a bin together for simplicity. In 1750 Pennsylvania was the first American colony where people of British descent became a minority. This sort of diversity makes it rather peculiar to speak of a Mid-Atlantic cultural folkway in which Germans, Dutch, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Swedes and Long Island Yankees can be thrown together into one pot. It’s somewhat like assigning the term “environmental” to all the components of variance in quantitative genetics of a phenotype which can not be attributed to genetics. You know what it isn’t, but what is it?
But that’s just an aside. You might infer from the image above that the point of this post is not to explore what the term “Mid-Atlantic” can tell us in any model of social history. Instead, I want to focus on one aspect of American coalitional politics which might be of interest in the next four years: Mormon America is a representative of the New England Puritan cultural tradition in “Red America.” The map above is going to be more informative here than words. “English America” in the American West is really Mormon America.
When I say Mormons are “Puritan,” I’m not saying this as a figure of speech; Mormon America is to a great extent both a direct cultural and genetic descendant of New England Puritanism. The proportion of “English” ancestry in Mormon America is somewhat exaggerated by the fact that missions were sent to England and so you had direct migrants from Europe to Utah. But this can’t explain the whole of the phenomenon, American Mormonism began as a religion of Greater New England. First in upstate New York, and later in northern Ohio. Its relocation to the Midwest was problematic for a host of reasons, but the fact that they were often neighbors of people whose origins were in the South and they were quite clearly Yankees probably exacerbated tensions.
Mormonism is a very communitarian religion, not unexpected from a faith with Puritan origins. Mormon settlements in Utah were laid out like New England towns, as opposed to isolated yeoman farmsteads. Brigham Young socialized water usage to optimally allocate resources for irrigation. A tendency toward campaigns for temperance and high fertility were features of New England society. Mormons are famously fertile (relatively) and do not drink. In Wisconsin administrators preferred Yankee settlers because they were more likely to be willing to raise money for pubic goods such as schools than migrants from the South. Mormons may be low-tax Republicans, but those in good standing tithe a very large proportion of their income obligately in their private life (10% from what I recall), while the church runs itself like a corporation which has economies of scale.
Unlike evangelical Christians in the South, Mormons do not accept with resignation that many youth may “raise hell” before settling down. Mormons do not accept the Protestant contention that salvation is through faith alone. Behavior matters. Social pathologies and the personal disorder which has been a feature of Southern cultural life since its inception are not features of Mormon America, which reflects Puritan fixation on public order as a check on private liberty.
Over the past generation Mormons and Southern Protestants have entered into a de facto alliance because of their social traditionalism. The recent controversy over Proposition 8 in California will likely result in even more esteem for the Mormon church from structurally suspicious evangelicals (they do not believe Mormons are Christian, and resent that they claim that they are Christian). In other ways Mormons have come to identify themselves with conservative Protestant America, which to a great extent means Southern America. There are data which show that while 70% of Brigham Young University students rejected Creationism in 1930, 70% now accept it. I believe this is due to cultural influence from evangelical Protestantism, with whom Mormons are now politically allied.
But I believe that the differences between Puritan Mormon America and Southern evangelical America need to be kept in mind. Some of Mitt Romney’s supporters were irritated that some conservative kingmakers (e.g., Richard Land) were leaning to Fred Thompson because of cultural affinities. Culture matters. Mormons may be aligned with the South, but the alliance will always play out in the framework of differences in cultural priors. Mitt Romney is a social conservative, and likely was before he had to lie to become governor of Massachusetts. But he is not a Southern social conservative, and that matters, and when he pretended to be he seemed phony.
Addendum: One can encapsulate what I’m trying to get at by considering an even more extreme case: Jews & black Americans. These two groups are most Left-leaning and Democratic demographics in American society, but, they obviously aren’t equivalent and there are qualitative differences in their liberalism. This doesn’t mean that the position of both these groups on the American Left is in question, but there will always be a tension within the alliance.