Peter Coviello’s Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism is both a perplexing peculiarity and a restorative revelation to Mormon studies. The book centers on early Mormonism, roughly from the founder Joseph Smith to the Brighamite sect’s fourth prophet, Wilford Woodruff, and looks at the religious history, especially that of polygamy, through the lenses of queer theory, indigenous studies, and sexuality. Coviello attempts to grasp a theoretical connection to how the Mormon religion (institution, culture, people) could go from being rejected by the American people in the 19th century for its sexual deviance (polygamy) to being considered, by Harold Bloom and others, as the quintessential American religion in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
To understand this dissidence, Coviello turns to secular and postsecular theory, which he outlines in his opening chapter, and sees Mormonism as a way to understand the binary (if one exists) of secular and religion. In Mormonism, Coviello finds the “biopolitics of secularism” (162–68, 230–37). That is, he first sees Mormonism as paradoxically queer in its treatment of the male and female body in polygamy. Then, he reads the foundational text of the Mormon movement, the Book of Mormon, to be part of an imperial project, while at the same time reading an anti-imperial message in the text. Coviello uses these two sides—the queer and the imperial—to then look at how, through their mistreatment and interactions with indigenous people when they traveled West, Mormons became a church that today is paradoxically representative of America yet rooted in an indelible queerness that it cannot escape. At the core of Make Yourselves Gods, Coviello notes that even religions use secularization—especially becoming secular—to better subject themselves and their adherents to “a clarified regime of order and systematicity” (170). In other words, secularism becomes the “racialized theodicy of hegemonic liberalism” (237) as religions (and any institution) seek to gain power in the world by becoming a part of the world—even by divinizing it.
The book is perplexingly peculiar because of how different it is from anything else published recently in Mormon studies. Up to this time, most work in Mormon studies has been historical works that attempt to reconcile the archival record with the mythologized story. In books such as Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling (Knopf, 2005), John G. Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Belknap, 2012), and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females (Knopf, 2017), Mormon studies scholars have worked on developing the historiography behind the myths that are established around prophets, pioneers, and polygamists.
Most of the works attempt to supplant those myths (such as Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History [Knopf, 1945; revised ed., 1971] and Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling working in twine to show Joseph Smith the man, instead of Joseph Smith the legend), while others work as apologist efforts to shore up the defenses of the church. Make Yourselves Gods is peculiar because it is an outside scholar, someone who is not of the Mormon faith, looking at not just the history of Mormonism (as, for example, non-Mormon Mormon historians like Jan Shipps does) but also its literature and theology to argue for larger and broader conversations in other histories of thought. Instead of keeping the Mormon conversations within Mormondom—both the study and the membership of the church (something historians Patrick Mason recently articulated in his 2019 inaugural lecture, republished in the Winter 2020 issue of Dialogue)—Coviello becomes a perplexing peculiarity in the field by utilizing Mormonism as a way to better understand his biopolitics of the secular (something he addresses in his prologue) and thus use it as an example rather than the central facet of a broader conversation.
It is also perplexingly peculiar because of its attendance and hyperfocus on the paradoxes that exist within Mormonism. Coviello’s continual refrain throughout the book is “and yet,” in which he signals to the reader that something in Mormonism might seem one way (homophobic, racist, antiqueer, imperialist, colonial), and yet it is also something else at the same time (queer, anti-imperialist, anti-colonial). For example, in the third chapter, Coviello understands the Book of Mormon as a complex literary text that argues for both an imperial and anti-imperial approach to race. Another example can be found in the second chapter of his work, in which he wrestles with woman’s divinized (or profane) body in Mormon polygamy. The women in polygamy, Coviello understands, were not just in subjection to patriarchy, stooges to misogyny, or empowered in their kinship; they were all of that and more, as seen in Coviello’s close reading of Zina Dianthe Huntington Jacobs Smith Young, the third Mormon Relief Society president (the women’s group in the church), who was married to Henry B. Jacobs, Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young, and who used the Mormon religion to flirt with power and godhood.
The perplexing peculiarity—of being an outsider among insiders, of being a theoretical work rather than a historical revision, and of attending to paradox—makes Coviello’s work also a restorative revelation to Mormon studies. Bringing with him a stark understanding of queer, gender, sexuality, and race theory, Coviello is able to use Mormonism as a way to expand these studies while also expanding Mormon studies. This approach to Mormonism is becoming more and more commonplace: for example, Joanna Brooks’ White Supremacy and the Mormon Church (Oxford Universty Press, 2020) and Taylor Petrey’s Tabernacles of Clay (University of North Carolina Press, 2020), both books from Mormon authors, use the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the larger Mormon diaspora as case studies to better understand and complicate arguments occurring in religious studies, race studies, and gender and sexuality studies.
Indeed, Coviello’s book, within this framework, excites the entirety of Mormon studies because it does not, for example, simply accept Bushman’s and Ulrich’s perceptions of polygamy as centering on kin building and instead refocuses polygamy as being about an eroticized theology of the body. In his approach to Mormonism, Coviello rejuvenates Mormon studies by infusing it with a much-needed theoretical apparatus, beckoning a new horizon to Mormon studies—one that casts rays on Mormonism, on academia, on religion, and on the secular project.