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Living History: Thanks to Romney, Mormonism is under the microscope

Published September 8, 2012 8:56 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The elevation of Mitt Romney to standard bearer and presidential candidate for the 2012 Republican Party has piqued an interest in his religion. Understandable, since after November the most powerful person in the nation might be a Mormon, and Americans are generally clueless about Mormons.

Newspapers, magazines, bloggers and the broadcast media have been educating the public. Some is flattering. Some not. Some accurate. Quite a bit not.

Mormonism is even popping up in cartoons.

It's the nature of political cartoons to be snarky, and the Mormon Moment has produced pen and ink jabs about missionaries, multiple wives and magic underwear. Modern Mormons aren't familiar with these public swipes at their faith, but their grandparents were.

It's been a century since Mormons have been so unflatteringly featured in the funny pages. From Joseph Smith in the 1840s to the Reed Smoot hearings a hundred years ago, Mormons were a recurring character in national print.

Mormons in the 1800s were catnip for cartoonists.

There was the sex. Or at least the kind of sex that cartoonists imagined came with polygamy. Our Utah great-grandmothers were sometimes transformed into dancing harem girls in the imagination of my 19th century peers. Others depicted women tricked into coming to Utah, only to be subjected to white slavery by lustful Mormon leaders.

Before Standard Oil got the same treatment decades later, Brigham Young was depicted as an octopus with his tentacles in every aspect of life in Utah. Brigham's distinctive whiskered visage became a stand-in for all things Mormon. When not drawn as a sybaritic mogul, he was a hapless sad sack hectored by dozens of wives and driven to distraction by hundreds of bawling brats.

When Brigham died in 1877, he was sent off in editorial cartoons with legions of weeping widows mourning his empty spot in the family, bus-sized bed.

Of course, none of this said much that was useful about the Latter-day Saints. But the humor was preferable to the outright bigotry.

In a number of cartoons Uncle Sam deals with undesirable elements who are polluting America by sweeping them out. These include lazy Negroes, scheming Jews, drunken Irish, devious Indians, pig-tailed Chinese ... and bearded Mormon polygamists.

The great 19th century cartoonist Thomas Nast — who gave us the GOP elephant, donkey Democrat and even our modern Santa Claus — is remembered for helping expose the corruption of the Tammany Hall political machine, but he was also a bigot, casting blacks and even Catholics and Mormons in a sinister light.

In one of his works, two giant reptiles are scaling the Capitol dome. One is labeled "Roman Church" and the other, which looks like a tabernacle-inspired turtle, "Mormon Church." Written on the Capitol are the words, "Religious liberty is guaranteed, but can we allow foreign reptiles to crawl all over US?"

What would Nast think if he awoke today to find a Mormon and Roman Catholic on the top of the Republican ticket?

I'm also left to wonder, what if the tabernacle/turtle symbol for Mormons caught on the way the elephant and donkey did? Would cartoonists today be drawing Romney with a carapace? And would that necessarily be bad?

Our great-grandparents bore up under the ridicule, so Mormons today might as well get used to the scrutiny and let the nonsense roll off their sturdy tabernacle-turtle backs.

Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune.