At BYU, I was a bit of a dabbler, at times, bordering on dilletantism. I took a week of Greek (too snotty), a year of Hebrew (being in company w/Brother Joseph has its perks, even it means having to tell people constantly that the JS translation bears little resemblance to the Masoretic text), and a semester of French. I also took a history course by our in-house sports historian called Sports, Society, and American culture. He had written a paper called, “Muscular Mormons” which placed Mormon conceptions of masculinity within greater trends of “muscular Christianity” then-prominent in American culture. Ultimately, the paper was hardly a second-draft and needed much revision before it could be published. Yet the ideas hit me in the chops–we as Mormons are distinctive in our how we make manliness.
Case study: Porter Rockwell. By all accounts, Porter Rockwell was a ne’er-do-well, “a strange-looking member for any church,” wrote a contemporary, even for the Mormons. He may have been mentally retarded (which would account for Joseph’s saying that he was as innocent as a child), but he certainly would not be revered in the contemporary Church. Yet there’s a difference between Rockwell and your average thug–he picked the right side. Had Porter been friends with John C. Bennett rather that Joseph Smith, I am convinced that we LDS would shudder when we hear the name, Porter Rockwell. Yet as a good acquaintance once (frighteningly) said to me: “God could use a thunder storm. Or Porter Rockwell.” Yeah, scary.
Porter Rockwell has become our Al Capone and Jack Bauer all with a dash of boyish mischief. His greatness only exists in our historical memory. He was edgy, witty (in defending himself against the charges of carrying out an assassniation attempt against Lilburn Boggs: “He’s still alive, ain’t he?”). No respectable Mormon mother would really want their daughter dating Rockwell these days. But many Mormon mothers find, “Modern-day Sampson” (the country song written in Rockwell’s honor) to be moving and inspirational.
So my question: to what degree is Rockwell representative of the Mormon vulnerability to the “bad boy” cultural strain? (a cultural strain admittedly present in the individualistic West). What makes us vulnerable to less-than-pious images provided they are on our side? Is it our theology (doubtful, but I could be convinced)? Is it our 100-some years of cultural isolation that has led us to value folks who are “our guys”?