Mormonism As the Hinge Upon Which Secularism Pivots

CovielloOne of the harbingers of the Mormon studies field’s development has been the increasing number of scholars who have turned their attention to the faith in order to explain broader academic issues. The most recent contribution to this growing trend is Peter Coviello, literature scholar and author of a handful of well-received books, whose Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism was published in the University of Chicago Press’s prestigious “Class 200” series. This series, edited by Kathryn Lofton and John Modern, prides itself on being interdisciplinary, innovative, and provocative; Make Yourselves Gods is no different.

Though early Mormons make up the subject of Coviello’s study, the true object of his focus is “secularism,” a potent word pregnant with many interpretations. In short, Coviello tries to show how Mormonism’s sexual and racial history demonstrate the limits of traditional theoretical literature on the subject. His aim, as he puts it, is to provide a new discourse on secularism, primarily one that shows how it has been a system of control and a variety of orthodoxy that punishes non-conformists. The root of antagonism against early Mormons, he reports, was due to their refusal to accept traditional religious boundaries demanded by the age—they refused to be a “good religion”—and were therefore pounded into submission until they did. The LDS Church could only achieve true assimilation, in other words, once they became secular.

Much of this trajectory is familiar to scholars of Mormonism, though Coviello tries to place a new twist on it, drawing from political theology, Native studies, and queer critique. (More on this later.) The result is a theoretically-dense, if research-sparse, argument that bounces between decades and themes as it addresses a larger literature of secularism studies.

Coviello begins his work with an extended overview of how historians have come to define the “secular,” culminating in a profound and convincing summary: “secularism” has, in many cases, come to serve the role of a theodicy for western culture, the justification for colonization, misogyny, and racism, all in the defense of the liberal, and liberated, self. This is a very useful chapter, and I’d recommend it for graduate courses seeking to introduce students to a broad and sometimes confusing field.

With that definitional foundation set, Coviello then turns his attention to the Mormons, first with their sexual deviancy and then to their racial appropriation. If sex (via polygamy) drove Mormonism’s early critique of secular culture, their embrace of white imperialism (via oppression of Natives and subjugation of African Americans) enabled their assimilation into it. The conclusion highlights how Mormonism’s integration into America’s secular empire is therefore not an unvarnished victory, but also a tragic tale of accepting and expanding repressive systems and morals.

If Coviello’s contribution to secularism studies is clear, and it is truly a smart and succinct contribution to that evolving field, his engagement with Mormon studies is a bit more subtle. He critiques previous scholars for creating what he calls a “secular redemption” narrative, positing early Mormons as far more secular—that is, far more an embodiment of the liberal, secular self—than is warranted. Historians are anxious, Coviello claims, to make Mormons “reluctant” polygamists, “illogical” racists, or “hesitant” theocrats, depicting their radical ideas and actions as aberrations to otherwise common characters enmeshed in their surrounding contexts. Coviello, rather, urges scholars to fully capture the radical nature of Joseph Smith’s “genius” imagination, a true and anti-secular departure from the status quo. While overstated, I think this critique has some merit.

At its heart, Make Yourselves Gods, then, is a declension narrative. It begins with what Coviello calls the “wild beauty and extravagant imaginative power” of early Mormonism, and closes with the faith embracing the “biopolitics” of traditional biography and racial supremacy. Though Coviello is insistent when he says that Young did not create the new oppressive order, his tale still reads like the traditional contrast of Joseph Smith the imaginative genius and Brigham Young the pragmatic tyrant; Smith the anti-secular, Young the proto-. And there is some truth to this, of course, as has been emphasized in the last generation of scholarship. But it can also overstate the change that took place over Mormonism’s first century, and it at times presents the two patriarchal leaders in portraits that are little more than one-dimensional.

But when Coviello is at his best, he introduces provocative new questions that genuinely surprised me and prompted new ideas. Perhaps his most compelling portions came in his chapter on polygamy, in which he drew from queer theory to demonstrate the unexplored contours of Mormonism’s most controversial marital practice. And for those who might be unfamiliar with the approach, “queer theory” in this case does not imply that homosexuality was rampant among early Mormons—though it does disrupt notions of heteronormativity, or the assumption that traditional heterosexual assumptions—but instead emphasizes what it means for Mormons to challenge the sexual status quo; it highlights, in other words, the deviancy of Mormon sexual practices, as seen from its broader Victorian context. Most especially, Coviello convincingly posits that scholars have failed to capture the “carnality” of Joseph Smith’s embodied theology, in which humans take corporeal form in order to experience joy, both in this life and the next. How does polygamy play into Smith’s quasi-obsession with pleasure? These are important questions.

But even here, Coviello’s theoretical structure might take him a step too far. At issue is the fact that the women who participated in polygamy consistently and nearly univocally described their experiences in non-carnal terms. Coviello engages this—almost exclusively through Zina Huntington’s tale, who shouldn’t be taken as representative—by explaining that their reminiscences were written decades later, and that their justifications in fact represent their embracing the secular discourse of monogamy (thus making them “reluctant” polygamists). But besides overlooking earlier accounts—we do have women’s voices in the 1840s and 1850s, after all—I fear that theorizing women’s accounts to mean their opposite could be another form of silencing, an ironic and unfortunate extension of the patriarchal system itself. I’m reluctant, then, to embrace an interpretive strategy that does not let the women speak for themselves.

One more point of critical engagement. Perhaps this is because I am too much of a contextual historian, but I found Make Yourselves God somewhat of a quixotic callback to previous scholarship, like that of Jan Shipps (whom he frequently cites), that depicted Mormons as exceptionally discordant with American Christianity. In Coviello’s case, this means arguing that their anti-secularist stance was far afield from their secular contemporaries. This strikes me, however, as a bit too exceptionalist for my taste. Must Mormons be discordant in order to be significant? For me, the power of Mormonism’s past comes in how they exemplify the cultural currents of their day, even if their expressions diverged in new streams.

But I do want to conclude my review by highlighting why I found Make Yourselves Gods an important contribution. Along with David Walker’s Railroading Religion, also published in 2019, Coviello’s book marks a flowering of theoretical approaches that finally add interdisciplinary weight to Mormon studies. While it’s true that the book was not as deeply based in comprehensive research,[1] Coviello’s engagement with a broader theoretical literature on secularism, race, and sex demonstrate Mormon studies’ potential of speaking to wider fields. The book is meant to be part of a dialogue more than a monograph, and in some ways reflected a 250 page-review essay, a work more interested in raising questions than providing answers.[2]

And that serves as an important function, I maintain. I argued with the book, yes, but I enjoyed arguing with it, as it raised new possibilities and challenged some of my assumptions. I’m sure I’ll be still wrestling with it for quite some time.


[1] With regard to primary sources, Coviello often either relied on compiled volumes like The Essential Joseph Smith, or the sources were mediated through monographs like Religion of a Different Color (on race) or The Four Zinas (on polygamy). With regard to secondary sources, Coviello didn’t seem aware of a vast array of Mormon studies literature that could have either reaffirmed or challenged this arguments.

[2] I’ll also note that, since this dialogue is mostly designed for other scholars of secularism, the language and questions will appear a bit foreign to most Mormon studies readers.