Mitt Learns to Say “Y’all” as Primary Heads South

Despite learning to say “y’all” and liking grits, Mitt Romney faces challenges as the primary season heads back to the South this Tuesday, when he’ll battle for delegates in Alabama and Mississippi, where (as of Sunday night) polls have him in a virtual three-way tie with Gingrich and Santorum.

As a wonky Yankee Mormon with a moderate past, Romney has always been a tough sell in the South. But how much of this has to do with his Mormonism? For context, I spoke with Patrick Mason, chair of the Mormon Studies program at Claremont Graduate University, and author of The Mormon Menace: Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (2011).

Tell me about the history of Mormonism in the American South.

Mormon missionaries went to the South within a couple of years of the founding of the LDS Church in 1830, so there have been Mormons in the South from the earliest years of the Mormon movement. Of course, a lot of Southern converts picked up and moved westward to Utah in the late 1840s and 1850s. And the LDS missionary program shut down in the American South during the mid-nineteenth century due to the Civil War and political conflicts in the American West.

What’s often lost to history is that Mormons in the mid-nineteenth century felt a deeper kinship with Southerners than Northerners. Northern Republicans were hellbent on getting rid of polygamy. They called it one of the “twin relics of barbarism,” along with slavery. This was an element of the Republican party platform in the 1850s. So in their emphasis on local control, states’ rights, and popular sovereignty, Mormons were allied with Southern Democrats. This kinship broke up when Southerners joined the anti-polygamy crusade in the 1880s. The moral argument against polygamy and defense of Christian civilization were too overwhelming for Southerners to resist. In fact, anti-polygamy served as one of the early grounds of sectional reconciliation.

When did Mormon missionary work resume in the South?

In the 1870s. By the 1880s, hundreds of LDS missionaries were canvassing the upper, middle, and lower South, baptizing people, enjoying success, and garnering some opposition—mostly theological, but also sometimes violent. As missionaries were traversing the South, they’d find LDS people who had converted in the 1830s and 1840s and never left.

My father served his mission in Louisiana in the 1960s, and he’d encounter rural Southern LDS people whose ancestors were converted in the 1840s by people like Parley P. Pratt.

Exactly. But these enclaves remained miniscule until the last quarter of the twentieth century, when following national trends, LDS baptisms increased and LDS outmigration from the Mormon culture region to the South picked up. Economic growth drew LDS people to the South, and efforts at reconciliation with Baptists and evangelicals followed.

In the last few years, then, we’ve seen the first public dialogues about Mormonism in the South—that is, outside of Baptist Sunday School curriculum that depicted Mormonism as a cult.

Right. There aren’t very many second- and third-generation Southern Mormons. Most just moved there. They are just learning to speak the language of the South. That’s what mitt Romney is struggling to do—to speak this regional language. It comes more naturally to Catholics, who have a slightly longer history of dialogue with evangelicals. Some Mormons report still being uncomfortable in the South, while others are quite comfortable because they feel a political kinship with their conservative Christian neighbors.

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