The LeBarons and the Making of the All-American Mormons

By now you’ve probably seen the news. On Monday, November 4, nine members of the LeBaron family were shot, burned, and killed in a violent ambush in the Mexican state of Sonora as they were driving in a three-car convoy to visit extended family. The entire group was made up of women and children, including two eight-month-old twins who died in a burning car with their mother. Five of the surviving children managed to escape and walk fourteen miles to get help.

The story made national news in the U.S., and headlines like this started cropping up: “Mormon Family Massacre Stuns Mexico, Laying Bare Government’s Helplessness” (New York Times), “What we know about the attack on a group of Mormon families in Mexico” (CNN), “Mexico ambush: How a US Mormon family ended up dead” (BBC), “The murders of 9 Mormon family members spotlights Mexico’s spiraling violence” (Vox), “The Brutal Murder of the Mormon Family in Mexico Was Almost Inevitable” (Slate). The list goes on.

Mainstream Latter-day Saints, whom I will refer to as “Mormons” throughout this piece, flocked to the comments section (as we are wont to do at any mention of our faith), and the responses to these articles began to take on a common refrain: “This family isn’t actually Mormon.”

The Church, too, had something to say about all this. On November 5, they issued an official statement: “We are heartbroken to hear of the tragedy that has touched these families in Mexico. Though it is our understanding that they are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, our love, prayers and sympathies are with them as they mourn and remember their loved ones” (emphasis added). Given the comment about the family’s religious affiliation, this was clearly not only a response to the tragedy itself but a correction to the reporting about it that kept making reference to the “Mormon family.”

My partner, who is actually actually not Mormon, asked me about all this over brunch. While relaying what I knew about the situation (from reading said articles and comment threads and the Church’s press release), I clarified that my own interest in the public reception of this story had nothing to do with adjudicating whether or not the LeBarons can rightly be called “Mormon” but why so many people, including non-members, seemed to be giving so much weight to this designation in the first place. Here, I will spend some time considering what all of these reactions to the LeBaron news—from Church headquarters, from Mormons online, from unaffiliated commenters—can reveal about the rhetorical use of the term “Mormon” in the U.S. right now.

The interests and motivations of the first two groups I mention, the institutional Church and Mormons in the comments section, are pretty easy to peg down. The mainstream LDS Church routinely makes a point to distance itself from off-shoot groups and communities still practicing polygamy (many of whom self-identify or are referred to by historians as “Mormon” in some fashion). As such, it’s not too surprising that the Church’s PR team was quick to offer the clarification “they are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” in reference to the LeBarons, who are associated with a break-off group that left Utah in the early twentieth century, moved to Chihuahua, and eventually formed a fundamentalist sect called The Church of the Firstborn. [1]

Moreover, since President Nelson’s announcement last year, the Church has been trying to curb the use of “Mormon” as a nickname altogether (which, honestly, is a whole post unto itself and a topic for another day). Of course, this hasn’t kept most journalists from using the term “Mormon” to refer to members of the mainstream LDS Church, so the LeBarons could easily be mistaken for Latter-day Saints by being called a “Mormon family.” Given the family’s storied and violent history and the Church’s concern with its public image, it makes sense that the latter would do its best to keep the record straight.

This insistence on using the Church’s full name in news reporting has some unintended consequences, though. Look, for example, at the tags listed at the bottom of NPR’s article “FBI Joins Investigation Into Killing Of 9 Members Of Mormon Family In Mexico” from November 11. One of the tags is “church of jesus christ of latter-day saints,” which I’m sure NPR uses now as a concession to the Church’s requests to the media about how to stylize the institution’s name. In this case, though, it means the mainstream LDS Church stays entangled in the ongoing LeBaron saga whether they like it or not.

The Mormons in the comments section care about this distinction too. They want to make sure their friends, neighbors, and fellow Americans know that they’re the normal Mormons: the ones who run successful businesses and play professional basketball and have seats in Congress—not the ones making headlines for running abusive polygamist compounds. It’s common for mainstream Latter-day Saints to decry fundamentalist sects as part of clarifying their religious identity to people unfamiliar with Mormonism. After all, they don’t want to be misunderstood or perceived as abnormal, not to mention it’s bad missionary work to let false information leak through uncorrected, thereby muddying the gospel message of the mainstream Church (especially vis-à-vis its disavowal of polygamy over a hundred years ago). All of this is understandable, or, at the very least, predictable.

Less predictable were the responses of unaffiliated commenters, especially from more progressive circles. I take as my example the thread on activist and writer Rebecca Solnit’s Facebook post from November 6, which prompted a discussion of the LeBarons and Mormonism.

rebecca solnit post nov 6

Nestled in one of the sub-threads, Solnit commented this:

rebecca solnit comment nov 6.PNG

(Fellow commenters started using the term “Mormonish,” with an emphasis on “ish,” which was amusing.)

Aside from her being a good-neighbor Californian who personally knows a number of Mormons, you might wonder why Solnit would be making what looks like a similar claim to the mainstream Mormon commenters previously discussed: “This family isn’t actually Mormon.” Is it just that she cares about the reputation of the mainstream LDS Church?

Before I can go any further, it’s time to address the elephant in the room that is Trump. He, of course, took to Twitter to offer his condolences, i.e., make a political statement.

trump tweet mexico

trump tweet mexico 2

Though he doesn’t specifically refer to “Mormons,” Trump’s use of the phrase “family and friends from Utah” does similar work: it paints them as “great American people.” Never mind that saying the LeBarons are “from Utah” is like saying I’m “from Ireland” because some of my ancestors were there over a century ago.

My point here, of course, is not to villainize the LeBaron family or to belittle the murders, which were horrific and left a permanent scar on the community. It’s Trump and the media outlets following his lead who have politicized a family tragedy for national consumption—and to do so, they used markers of whiteness like “from Utah” (in this case) or “Mormon” (in the case of most headlines) to do the work of garnering a specific kind of sympathy (for the white Americans) while fueling a specific kind of resentment (for the cartels and, by sloppy extension, Mexicans in general).

And thus the interest of someone like Rebecca Solnit in entering the fray. If the term “Mormon” is being used as a metonym for whiteness, true-Americanness, or “deserving of sympathy”-ness as part of a xenophobic rhetorical strategy, it’s worth interrogating that usage.

This small story about the rhetorical use of the term “Mormon” serves as evidence for the central claims of historians Thomas Alexander in Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890–1930 (1986) and, more recently, W. Paul Reeve in his watershed book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (2015). Both show how the LDS Church made a kind of bid for acceptance in American public, political, and cultural life starting in the early twentieth century. You could make the case that the Church has been steadily succeeding in this realm since the end of World War II, but that hasn’t kept us from continuing to vie for normalcy through efforts like the “I’m a Mormon” campaign (launched in 2010) or celebrating the “Mormon Moment” ushered in by Mitt Romney’s bid for president in 2012.

Though Mormons often think of ourselves as outsiders, it’s no longer true in the American context. As Reeve demonstrates, Mormons sought “whiteness” and got it. We sought “American” status and got it. In Trump’s America, Utah is no longer a state on the fringes—it’s the all-American place.

We’ve arrived, Mormons. We’re American as apple pie. What now?

 

[1] I had originally written that the LeBarons left Utah in the late nineteenth century. Religious studies scholar Cristina Rosetti offered this important clarification: “[Most of the] LeBarons left Utah in the 1920s. The Church of the Firstborn in the Fullness of Times wasn’t established until 1955. I think this is an important distinction because the 19th century Mormons went to Mexico because the LDS Church told them to go somewhere they could live polygamy. The LeBaron family was excommunicated and not in good standing when they organized.”

Similarly, it has been brought to my attention that the family in question may not be affiliated with the group who established the Church of the Firstborn. I have yet to find a definitive answer about that and will gladly publish any needed corrections.

Facts matter, of course, and I genuinely appreciate those who have offered their expertise. I want to clarify, however, that the purpose of this piece is not to give a historical account of the LeBarons (which it is not my place to do) but to reflect on what we can learn from the public reception of this news story, including the unintentional inaccuracies and widely-circulated misinformation. My interest is in analyzing this space: how the story circulated and the various responses to it, especially as it relates to the use and rhetorical work of the term “Mormon.” For more on the LeBaron family history, there are a few comments below that point to additional resources.

Comments

  1. Michael Austin says:

    The day that this happened, I got an email from a good friend of mine, who is Muslim, saying how sorry he was that this happened and expressing his sympathy to me and to the Mormon people. Before even thinking, I started to write a message back explaining that these “Mormons” weren’t the same as the kind of “Mormon” that I am, since I am a normal, non-weird person and not a crazy polygamist in Mexico.

    Fortunately, I realized how ungracious and bigoted this sounded before I finished. And I realized that my friend–who is a retired physics professor and a distinguished member of our community–knows all about the way that the media and public opinion collapse members of the same religion into simplistic stereotypes and so he totally didn’t need my defensive reply. So I just thanked him for his concern and his kind words.

    But I thought for a long time about my initial response and what it said about me that I felt this reflexive need to distance myself from people who had experienced a great tragedy while talking with somebody who was being gracious and compassionate and religious in all the right ways. And I think that your post really helps me think through this reflex. Thank you.

  2. If the church wants to distance itself from the phrase Mormons, then all that is left is the usage to mean polygamous sects that broke off from the church. To me the media was correct in its usage of Mormon in this case.

  3. richellejolene says:

    @jader3rd True enough, but I suspect the media’s “correct usage” of the term (vis-à-vis the Church’s new guidelines) was accidental. It seemed like most of the news outlets were still connecting the term “Mormon” to the mainstream LDS Church, as evidenced by the NPR tag I mentioned (“church of jesus christ of latter-day saints”) on an article about the LeBaron family that used the term “Mormon” in the headline and throughout the piece.

    In any case, the Church is still worried about the collapsed distinction because the reading public hasn’t caught up with the new style guidelines (nor will they ever, I imagine), so to most people, a Mormon is a Mormon is a Mormon.

  4. Per WaPo’s AP piece by Christopher Sherman: *** “[…M]any La Mora residents believe in mainstream Mormon tenets, they also believe ‘they shouldn’t be forming churches, they shouldn’t be organizing under one leader. They should just be Mormon and live their Mormon life. That’s who the people of La Mora are,’ [Cristina] Rosetti said. Some of the families living there still practice polygamy while others stopped generations ago, she said.” … “Better known than the Mormons from the La Mora community are the founders and descendants of Colonia LeBaron in Chihuahua state.” … “Through intermarriage over the generations, the LeBaron surname became common in La Mora, Rosetti said. But since the family name is so widely associated with the church, La Mora residents consider themselves ‘independent Mormons’ to stress they have no connection to the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times, she said.” ***

    Climbing more into the weeds with regard to what Sherman reported, in an interview by Caroline Ballard on Utah public radio station KUER, Rosetti explains that La Mora’s Langford family is “independent Mormon” and that whether La Mora residents practice polygamy or do not nonetheless they’d for the most part hold it as an “eternal religious principle. A lot of them choose to live there because they’ve lived there for generations, so it’s a generational community, but they’re able to practice their religion.” (More: “a lot of people have conflated the La Mora community with the LeBaron community, and that is an incorrect conflation.” … “most people in La Mora are what we refer to as an Independent Mormon … not part of a church. They don’t have a leader. They’re not organized. A lot of people have been referring to them as the ‘La Mora Group’ or a sect of the LDS church and that’s not the case. They are just different families that have common beliefs, but they’re not part of a church and they all just live together in La Mora.” . . . )

  5. richellejolene says:

    @KLH, thank you for this! Cristina offered a couple of these corrections over on Facebook, too. I want to make sure to get the story straight and credit her work, so I’ll be updating the post as soon as I can.

  6. Alan LeBaron says:

    I lived in Mexico for a number of years and in conversation most Mexicans had heard of the “Mormon” church, knew where the local “Mormon” chapel was,had friends and or relatives who were “Mormon”, had met “Mormon” missionaries and knew where there was a “Mormon” temple but almost none of them had heard of La Iglesia de Jesucristo de los Santos de los Últimos Días.

  7. Alan LeBaron says:

    Please replace my last “and” with “or”. Sorry!

  8. This sad tragedy is not the best place to make this comment, but I believe the elephant in the room is that we distance ourselves from these groups by requesting a name change when we still hold onto the doctrine that inspires their polygamous lifestyle: D&C 132 and temple sealing practices. After all, President Nelson and Oaks are sealed to two women. We may have achieved “American status” with our massive public affairs efforts, but members know the eternal plural marriage doctrine is still there. The rush to clarify that we are not a polygamous sect seems a little disingenuous.

  9. As I mentioned in another blog, for greater understanding of the sect’s history I would recommend reading “Prophet of Blood: The Untold Story of Ervil LaBaron and the Lambs of God” by Ben Bradlee Jr. and Dale Van Atta.

  10. Our religion “started it” when it comes to modern polygamy in America. And, as Bence explains, it still supports it in some significant ways. Since it is my opinion that polygamy was a mistake to begin with, I think it is fitting for the church to be haunted by its past and current association with the doctrine until it discards it altogether.

  11. It’s interesting that your conclusion is that Mormons have arrived. Many Mormons came to the opposite conclusion based on the tweets/articles/headlines you didn’t mention in your long write-up from the NYT, LA Times, and cnn.com.

  12. richellejolene says:

    @RobL Interesting. My list was generated by top results in my own Google search (which may favor certain news outlets above others) and is certainly not comprehensive. What kinds of reporting do you think Mormons found alienating? Was it general concern that mainstream Mormonism was mistakenly being associated with polygamist sects?

  13. By “many mormons,” I am of course referring to some of my Facebook friends. I actually didn’t see anyone upset about the lack of distinction between the mainstream church and the group in the news. But I saw the following cited with outrage:

    LA Times headline, “U.S. victims in Mexico massacre were tied to family with a long history of violence”

    NY Times tweet, “The brutal killing of 9 members of an American family in northern Mexico on Monday highlights the long history of religious fundamentalist settlers in the region. Our religion reporter, Elizabeth Dias, details their history back to the early 20th century.”

    I believe the outrage was about these media outlets feeling the need to provide historical context (and not recent historical context) to a cartel murdering women and children, with no evidence that said historical context had anything to do with the murders. If you’re a conservative Mormon who believes that the media is biased against you, such headlines would naturally feed into a persecution complex.

  14. Jack Hughes says:

    Part of the problem is that for many Latter-day Saints, tragic events like these are their first exposure to the fact of modern-day polygamy. I grew up in the Church, though far outside of the Morridor, and while I knew of historical polygamy, I was completely unaware there were Mormon-heritage groups still living The Principle until the early 2000s when Warren Jeffs’ crimes were coming to national attention (I was in my 20s).

    Like K BENCE, I welcome the potential embarrassment this brings to the Church, if only to spur them on toward discarding the harmful doctrines of eternal polygamy.

  15. Ugh. They’re Mormons. This doesn’t have anything to do with whiteness because many are dual citizens, live in both Utah and Mexico, etc. I don’t really get how this article turned from using the name Mormon into a Trump thing and then on whiteness, and mentioning what internet commentors are writing. If we are focusing on the term Mormon, all in bloggernacle and Ex2 know Mormon is word used for anyone who was/is member of LDS church or offshoot. We know LDS means LDS now as they’re distinguishing it. I was actually impressed with the way news outlets announced the story.

  16. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I like how you highlight the heavy lifting “mormon” does in portraying whiteness. I’ll confess to glossing past this in my initial thinking about the story. If this identical tragedy occurred but it was a brown skinned family (even members of the mainstream church of jesus christ of latter day saints), Trump would not have reacted to it, and Mormon may not have been invoked. But because this happened in Mexico, “mormon” and “Utah” were required to mark them as white. This, even though many were Mexican citizens.

  17. I am so saddened by this horrible tragedy! This is going to sound super cliche (especially because I am a Latter-Day Saint myself), and I understand that the surviving members of those families are not Latter-Day Saints, but I hope they can eventually realize that they will be reunited with their deceased loved ones again. If they have faith, the Lord will help them, and He will bless them, too.

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