By Max Perry Mueller
A response to the conference Mormonism and American Politics on February 3-4, 2012.
On the fifteenth floor in a Columbia University building overlooking a majestic New York City skyline, some of the most well-known scholars of Mormonism—and me—gathered to present papers on the role of Mormonism and American politics during this so-called “Mormon Moment.” Professors and students from Columbia and other NYC-area universities, a handful of LDS missionaries, and reps from local and international news outlets, braved unreliable elevators to bring the large lecture hall to capacity on both days of the conference.
In the fog of post-conference exhaustion—and sitting in JFK waiting for the long flight back to Zion—my head swims in as many questions as it does answers. And for the better, I think. For at the intersection of religion and politics, capital “T” truths (like those that might be shared at a testimony meeting) are hard to come by. But let me offer eleven tentative takeaways from the conference:
1. Mormons have always needed politics. Richard Bushman presented on Smith’s 1844 campaign, understanding “General Smith” as a reluctant candidate for the White House. Failing to get the leading American politicians of the day to guarantee to protect the persecuted saints, Smith threw his hat into the ring initially as an act of desperation. Smith had initially thought he could establish his latter-day society with an attitude of “indifference” to the American political community. Persecution proved that Zion needed government protection for it flourish. Smith’s belief in the Constitution as sacred comes out of his experience that those holding the “keys” to Constitutional authority had failed to uphold their “callings,” leaving the saints (and for that matter the “bondsmen,” the immigrant and the orphan) in the lurch. But for Smith the genius of the Constitution—the key to it—was that it was a design of unity
2. Mormons have always needed the law, and even lawyers. Sally Barringer Gordon (let me just interject my great admiration for the way she thinks, writes, and speaks—O.K., I’m done with sychophantry) told the tale that Mormons used law, instead of war, to make political change. While Brigham hated lawyers, Mormons in Utah used law (and eventually trained their own lawyers) instead of violence to keep control over Zion, protect the imprisoned polygamists, and eventually create a Utah that was very much in line (legally and politically) with the rest of America.
This is an important intervention into the scholarship of Mormons, Americanization of Utah and American legal history in general. How many books have been written on the Nauvoo Legion, Zion’s Camp, Danites, and the Mormon Battalion? We need a book about the “army of Mormon lawyers,” a group might have been more influential than any one of the paramilitary branches of Zion in forming Utah. Often these lawyers, as Sally pointed out, were Mormon “outsiders” (Democrats, monogamists), and this gave them the standing in the eyes of the rest of America to “stand at the bar” and defend their brethren.
All is not well in this story however. Women (the victims of the abuses of polygamy) were often silenced during the polygamy trials. Sister wives were also left without a home to hang their bonnets in when Utah made polygamy a felony in the Utah Constitution.
3. Mormons have not always been Republicans—self-sufficient and “Amazingly” so! Jan Shipps points out that Ezra T. Benson’s anti-Communism (and anti-big government) politics led to the view that Mormons were “amazing” (a reference to a 1952 Coronet article), that through pluck and Mormon communitarianism, Utah survived the Great Depression without the needing the “dole.” Untrue. Utahans benefited from the New Deal programs as much as any other American group. In fact while the “Brethren” called for the defeat of FDR, the Mormons in the pews voted for FDR because they benefited from his policies.
4. Mormon history is both one of racial exclusion and inclusion. I argued that the media—which has become obsessed with the history of Mormon racial exclusion now that the campaign is shaping up to be Barack v. Mitt—needs to understand that there are at least two histories of Mormon race relations. One of racial exclusion (the priesthood ban, Joseph Smith’s anti-abolitionist screeds, Utah slavery, the Book of Mormon’s racialized language, reluctance to embrace civil rights) and one of racial inclusion (the mid-nineteenth century view of race as mutable, slavery as “redemptive,” Joseph Smith as an abolitionist, Mormon historians helping to overturn the priesthood ban).
5. Mormon women’s voices in politics have been key to the formation of Mormons’ political place in the world. Claudia Bushman has shown that the Mormon women’s voice (singular) is never unified, striking one single note. And even in a patriarchy, Mormon women, sometimes more than Mormon men have protected “Mormon” politics (fighting against anti-polygamy laws of the 1870s, fighting against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s).
6. Mormons speak on political issues differently in public than they do in private. Joanna Brooks made perhaps the most interesting theoretical intervention at the conference by introducing us (or at least me) to the idea of Mormon “undergrounding” political rhetoric. During the Prop 8 campaign, Mormons voiced fundamentally different concerns about the possible results of the legalization of same-sex marriage. In public, Mormons reached out to form ecumenical relationships with “co-belligerents”: conservative Christians (Catholics, black Protestants), based on the idea that same-sex marriage would threaten the sanctity of marriage. But internal discussions showed that LDS leaders perpetuated a “paranoid politics” (to use Hofstatder’s famous concept) about what same-sex marriage would mean for Mormons in particular, including the state forcing Mormons to perform same-sex marriages, which would in turn lead Mormons to shut down temples to prevent such intrusions of unsanctioned marriages (and unholy people).
7. It is impossible to draw a straight line between Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and his beliefs in American exceptionalism. Philip Barlow cautioned scholars and the media to avoid equating Romney’s Mormonism (with its belief in America as the most sacred space on the planet, the location of both time’s beginning and end) with his doctrine of American exceptionalism. Prof. Barlow listed many, many religious and politically motivated views outside of Mormonism that make America the axis mundi of God’s will on the earth (John Winthrop’s City on a Hill, Reagan’s re-appropriation of this concept). And then let’s not forget Governor Romney’s intense competitiveness (which Barlow knows firsthand, having served with him in the Belmont ward). Mitt wants what he loves (Bain, his boys, Belmont and America) to succeed. There is more of Mitt in American exceptionalism than Mormonism, suggests Barlow.
8. Mormons are a peculiar people—and are glad for it. David Campbell, the co-author of American Grace, pulled from his survey work with Bob Putnam (and new surveys focusing, in particular, on Mormons) to show that Mormons love being Mormons more than any other religious group. This “ingroup” love is so powerful that it can be compared to the “ingroup” affection among Latinos and African Americans—yes, Mormons’ self-directed affection looks more like an ethnic group than a religious group.
9. Mormons continue to have a hard time becoming part of the American sacred community. And according to Russell Arben Fox, this is as much due to Mormons’ own self-affirmation as to anti-Mormonism. The belief in personal and corporate revelation, which holds that Mormonism is the “only true church,” is reiterated by saints at least once a month (at fast and testimony meetings). This epistemological self-confidence affects how Mormons interact with “mainline” American civil religion, which, at its core, publicly recognizes the religious validity of a pluralism of faiths.
10. Journalists don’t get Mormons, and can’t write about them accurately, because they view Mormonism through a “Protestant lens” (Bob Orsi, and J.Z. Smith would say most religious studies scholars fail for the same reason). Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune gives us a list of the ways most journalists, with a few notable exceptions, fail to grasp Mormon complexity: misusing Mormon vocabulary; misusing religious vocabulary that Mormons deploy differently; representing folk belief as official doctrine; misunderstanding hierarchical relationships, rotating nature of lay clergy; regarding post-Mormons as unproblematic whistleblowers.
11. Mormons are Progressives! I will give the shortest explanation to this because I have to get on a plane (and because Matt B. explains this in his new book The Mormon People). Mormon progressivism has everything to do with Mormon high anthropology (eternal progression) and the Mormons’ emergence into the American political scene during the progressive era.
Max Perry Mueller is Associate Editor of Religion & Politics, a forthcoming weekly online journal published by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. A version of this post was published by Juvenile Instructor.