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Mormonism and American Politics Conference

February 3, 2012 @ 9:00 am - February 4, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

With a Mormon candidate for the presidency and the unprecedented media attention given to Mormons recently, this conference  will take a broad view of the history of Mormon participation in American political life, from Joseph Smith’s 1844 run for the presidency to the Reed Smoot trials of the early 20th century and to the rise of Ezra Taft Benson during the Eisenhower administration, which ushered in a new era of Mormon identification with the Republican Party.

Speakers include Randall BalmerJana Reiss, Richard Bushman, Claudia Bushman, Joanna BrooksMatthew Bowman,Sarah Barringer Gordon, Jan Shipps, David Campbell, Russell Arben Fox, Max Perry Mueller, Philip Barlow, and Peggy Fletcher StackThe Religious Test, a documentary about American voters’ perceptions of Mormons, will also be screened.

Moderated and organized by Randall Balmer and Jana Riess. Sponsored by the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life.

No registration required. Seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Members of press may contact [email protected].

Conference schedule and participant bios and paper abstracts follow:



Friday, February 3rd, 2012, 9am-5pm
International Affairs Building, Room 1501
420 W 118th St.

8:45 – 9:00 am: Registration and Introductions

9:00-10:15 am
Richard Lyman Bushman: Joseph Smith’s Presidential Campaign
Sally Barringer Gordon: The Laws of God and the Lawyers


10:45 am -12:00 pm
Jan Shipps: Ezra Taft Benson and the Conservative Turn of “Those Amazing Mormons”
Max Mueller: Twice-told Tale’: Telling Two Histories of Mormon-Black Relations during the 2012 Presidential Election

LUNCH (a list of nearby establishments will be available)

1:00-2:15 pm
Philip Barlow: A Mormon-Inflected Foreign Policy?
David Campbell: A Peculiar People? The Religious, Social, and Political Distinctiveness of Mormons


2:45-4:00 pm
Claudia Bushman: Mormon Women Talk Politics
Joanna Brooks: On the “Underground”:  What the Mormon Yes on 8 campaign reveals about the future of Mormons in American political life

Saturday February 4th, 2012, 9am-12:30 pm
International Affairs Building, Room 1501
420 W 118th St.

9:00-10:00 am
Film screening: The Religious Test


10:30-12:00 am
Russell Arben Fox: Theology, Revelation, and Civil Religion: Mormonism and America’s Contested Religious Establishment
Peggy Fletcher Stack: Mormonism in the Media: The Inadequacy of Parallels or Why Reporters Can Get it Right and Still Be Wrong
Matthew Bowman: Eternal Progression: Mormonism and American Progressivism




Randall Balmer is Professor of American Religious History at Columbia University, where he has taught since earning the Ph.D. From Princeton University in 1985.  He is the author of more than a dozen books, including “God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush” and “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America,” now in its fourth edition, which was made into an award-winning documentary for PBS.


Jana Riess is the author, co-author, or editor of nine books, including Flunking SainthoodWhat Would Buffy Do?American Pilgrimage, and The Writer’s Market Guide to Getting Published.  She holds degrees in religion from Wellesley College and Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in American religious history from Columbia University. She speaks often to media about issues pertaining to religion in America, and has been interviewed by the Associated Press, TimeNewsweek, People, the Boston GlobeUSA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsday, among other print publications, as well as “Voice of America,” the Today show, MSNBC, and NPR’s “All Things Considered,” “Tell Me More,” and “Talk of the Nation.” She has blogged for Beliefnet and the Religion News Service.


Trevor Hill (Genesis Media Works) graduated from USC with a degree in Film Production and founded Genesis Media Works  in 2006, which specializes in production of transformative social documentary films.

Meredith LeSueur (Mainport Media) graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in Philosophy. In 2009 she founded Mainport Media with her husband Cory LeSueur.

The Religious Test is a documentary film that explores why one in five Americans claim they would not support a Mormon for President. It asks two questions at the root of this issue: “What about Mormons is hard to vote for?” and “What in American Politics makes this religion such an issue?” The first question is answered by interviews with Mormon historians, including Richard Bushman (Rough Stone Rolling), Daymon Smith (The Book of Mammon), Martha Bradley (Pedestals and Podiums) and Darius Gray (Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons). As the historical narrative of Mormonism unfolds, The Religious Test uncovers how the faith, culture and politics of Mormons have developed over time – shaping how they act and are viewed in the current political arena. The film explores the second question through interviews with politicians and political commentators. Damon Linker (The Religious Test, Newsweek) explains how religious conviction often conflicts with liberal democracy, while Senator Joe Lieberman argues for more acceptance of religious diversity.  A candid interview with Joanna Brooks (Religion Dispatches) examines the resistance to Mormon politicians on multiple cultural, political and historical levels.


Philip Barlow is co-editor, with Terryl Givens, of the Oxford Handbook to Mormonism and co-author, with Jan Shipps, of Mormonism (forthcoming, respectively, from Oxford and Columbia University presses).  He is the Leonard J. Arrington Professor of Mormon History & Culture at Utah State University.

Abstract: A Mormon-Inflected Foreign Policy?

Would a President Mitt Romney be beholden to commanding Mormon leaders in making policy for America?  Can the nation entrust authority over the “nuclear button” to a president who believes in angels and gold plates?  Not intrinsically silly, such questions are usually posed in wholesale ignorance of modern Mormonism and of Romney’s personal philosophy and record.  Or they are rhetorically couched as cultural and personal slanders by political or religious rivals.  More promising inquiry might ask how the candidate’s Mormon and family history has shaped his character, or whether his religious background is apt to affect how he sees America’s role in the wider world.  Notions of American exceptionalism comprise one potential sector of interest, the content of which might conceivably color one’s future foreign policy.  In Mormonism, concepts of American exceptionalism link with notions of religious exceptionalism.  Each domain carries competing dominant and recessive genes, manifest in different proportions across time.  How any particular Mormon politician might ignore or be influenced by this genetic heritage invites caution, but the legacy itself is worth noting.


Matthew Bowman is the author of The Mormon People: the Making of the American Faith (Random House, 2012), and multiple articles about Mormonism and American evangelicalism. He is the four time recipient of the Mormon History Association’s Brooks Award for best graduate student paper.  He completed his dissertation on conflicts between liberal and conservative iterations of evangelicalism in early twentieth century New York City at Georgetown University, and presently teaches American religious history at Hampden-Sydney College.  He is the associate editor of Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought.

Abstract: Eternal Progression: Mormonism and American Progressivism

That the Mormons found the temper of American public life at the turn of the twentieth century congenial, given that they had just concluded a bitter feud with the federal government, seems on the face of it incongruous.  The end of polygamy in 1890 was not merely the end of a marriage system, but a blow to the ways Mormons understood the nature of human relationships and the means and ends of the proper functioning of human society.   But as they ventured from the confines of the Rocky Mountains into American life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they found flourishing there a movement that seemed to them ideologically, politically, and culturally appealing: American progressivism.   The wildly diverse progressive movement generally coalesced around confidence in humanity’s rational and organizational capacities and more, a certainty that right organization, right education, and right discipline could transform any person into a moral and virtuous American.   While the dense hierarchical and patriarchal society which polygamy had created floundered, Mormons found in progressivism’s optimism and faith in human potential echoes of their own longing for Zion and belief in the divine roots of humanity.  The language of progressivism both mediated the relationship between Mormonism and the nation, but also gave the Mormons tools of rhetoric and program as they struggled to transition from a polygamous sect to a successful religion.


Joanna Brooks is a national voice on Mormon life and politics.  She is a columnist for ReligionDispatches.org, a scholar of religion and American culture, and chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University.

Abstract: On the “Underground”:  What the Mormon Yes on 8 campaign reveals about the future of Mormons in American political life

Acting on instruction from LDS Church leaders, Mormons, who constitute about 2% of California’s population, contributed a majority of the donations and volunteer hours to 2008’s “Yes on 8” campaign to de-legalize same sex marriage in California. The intensity of LDS involvement in the “Protect Marriage” campaign, I will argue,  was driven by century-old tensions between Mormons and American civil society over questions of family definition, theocracy, and state sovereignty.   Under pressure from federal powers, Mormons were forced to go “underground” with the practice of polygamy in the 1880s.  After the Church’s abolition of this-worldly polygamy in 1890, LDS people withdrew belief in the eternal efficacy of polygamy into the realm of private mind.  This private-public split and consequential habits of dualism and guardedness in public speech remain live within LDS culture.  My paper will examine how the Proposition 8 campaign reactivated LDS habits of “undergrounding” that continue to shape the Mormon presence in American civic and political life.


Claudia L. Bushman, the founding editor of the Mormon feminist publication Exponent II, taught American Studies at Columbia University for many years.  During the last three years, she and her husband Richard L. Bushman taught Mormon studies at the Claremont Graduate University School of Religion in Southern California.  While there she founded a continuing Oral history project to record what LDS women have to say. She will draw upon that collection for this talk. She has published twelve books of social and cultural history and Mormonism, including Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America, and Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah. Her twelfth book is Pansy’s History:  Margaret E. P. Gordon, 1866-1966 an edited autobiography of her maternal grandmother. She was named New York State’s Mother of the Year in 2002.

Abstract: Mormon Women Talk Politics

Mormon women have sometimes entered the United States political arena at the encouragement of LDS Church leadership.  This paper will look at and compare women’s words generated in three political conflicts:  the threat of the Cullom Anti-Polygamy Bill in the Utah territory in 1870; Church opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and the accompanying International Woman’s Year  meetings in 1977; and Proposition 8, the Act to “Preserve Marriage” for heterosexual unions  exclusively in 2008 in California.  The voices quoted will be those of Eliza R. Snow, Elaine Cannon and the women interviewed in the Claremont Oral History program.


Richard Lyman Bushman is Gouverneur Morris Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University in New York City, and more recently visiting Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California.  Educated at Harvard College, he earned an A.M. in history and a Ph.D. in the history of American civilization from Harvard University.  His first book, From Puritan to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690?1765 (1967), was awarded the Bancroft Prize. He has also published Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1984), King and People in Provincial Massachusetts (1985); The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (1992); and Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2005).

Abstract: Joseph Smith’s Presidential Campaign

In the course of his career as a religious leader, Joseph Smith migrated from almost total abstinence from politics to active candidacy for the presidency.  Like other millenarians, Smith initially thought secular government was irrelevant; it would vanish at the Second Coming.  But when his own plan to establish Zion on the American frontier was thwarted by mob violence, Smith realized his dependence on civil government to achieve his goals.  From then to the rest of his life he repeatedly turned to state and federal governments for protection.  He ran for president in 1844 out of frustration with the refusal of other candidates to promise help.  At the outset he was a protest candidate, but once he entered the political arena his always fertile mind began to imagine an alternate politics to the party strife that accompanied elections in the United States.  He began to imagine a government that would rise above party and rule by dint of good will.  He called upon a tradition in American political thought that went back to Bolingbroke’s Patriot King and the initial American dream of presidents above party.  Smith envisioned a government with the soul of a church.  To this day, this history hovers over the involvement of Mormons in politics.


David Campbell is the John Cardinal O’Hara, C.S.C. Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and the founding director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy. He is the co-author (with Robert Putnam) of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which has been described by the New York Times as “intellectually powerful,” by America as “an instant classic” and by the San Francisco Chronicle  as “the most successfully argued sociological study of American religion in more than half a century.” American Grace has also received both the 2011 Woodrow Wilson Award from the American Political Science Association for the best book on government, politics, or international affairs and the Wilbur Award from the Religious Communicators Council for the best non-fiction book of 2010. Prof. Campbell is also the author of Why We Vote: How Schools and Communities Shape Our Civic Life and the editor of A Matter of Faith: Religion in the 2004 Presidential Election. As an expert on religion, politics, and civic engagement, he has often been featured in the national media, including the New York Times, Economist, USA Today, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Time, NBC News, CNN, NPR, Fox News, and C-SPAN.

Abstract: A Peculiar People? The Religious, Social, and Political Distinctiveness of Mormons

This paper describes Mormons’ religious social, and political distinctiveness, and thus why Mormons can be considered a “peculiar people” (a biblical label Mormons often apply to themselves). It first details Mormons’ theological beliefs and political attitudes. Mormon theology, while sharing common elements with traditional Christian faiths, also includes unique beliefs and practices. It then then delves into the partisan profile of American Mormons, both in the present and the past. While today’s Mormons are overwhelmingly Republican, this is a relatively recent development—the third historical period of Mormons’ political affiliation. In the mid-19th century, Mormons were cut-off from national partisanship; the late 19th to mid-20th centuries were marked by Mormons’ conformity and accommodation with American political norms, which included bipartisanship. Only in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have Mormons become heavily Republican, largely because of the social conservatism shared by both the Republican Party and the LDS Church. However, Mormons’ distinctiveness is underscored by the subtle but significant ways that their attitudes differ from other political conservatives on key issues such as abortion and immigration. The paper then turns to the distinctive aspects of Mormons’ political activity. While, in general, Mormons are only slightly more active in politics than other Americans, their tight social networks and hierarchical religious organization can periodically lead to rapid and intense political mobilization. Mormons are “dry kindling,” ready to ignite into explosive political activity. The most recent example of their mobilization potential was seen during the 2008 campaign in favor of California’s Proposition 8—an anti-gay marriage ballot initiative—but this is not the only case. Among the data I will bring to bear in understanding how and when Mormons “follow their leaders” are experiments, embedded in a  national survey of Mormons, that allow a test of the causal link between what LDS leaders say and what LDS laity do.


Russell Arben Fox is an associate professor and the director of the political science program at Friends University, a small Christian liberal arts college in Wichita, KS, where he lives with his wife, Melissa Madsen Fox, and their four daughters. Before coming to Friends in 2006, Russell taught at universities in Washington DC, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Illinois. He teaches a large range of classes on American government and history, international relations, and political theory, and has published on topics relating to communitarianism, civil religion, Confucianism, Mormonism, German Romanticism, education, socialism, and bicycling. He blogs at In Medias Res, is a contributing writer for the blogs By Common Consent, and Front Porch Republic, and is the book review editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

Abstract: Theology, Revelation, and Civil Religion: Mormonism and America’s Contested Religious Establishment

Since 2007, Mormonism has emerged—politically, culturally, socially, and legally—as a fully developed national phenomenon in America’s common discourse. This is a complicating development, for both the country and for Mormonism itself, because much of this common discourse, especially in regards to politics, is conducted in light of what many scholars have referred to as our “civil religion,” and as broad as that unofficial quasi-establishment may be in ecumenical terms, it still develops expectations about how people who bring their religious beliefs into the public square will express them, and Mormon expressions in crucial ways do not appear to fit those expectations. While Mormon candidates and voters may legitimately feel as though there is no good theological reason for them to appear as outsiders to this nominally Judeo-Christian mainstream, often their complaints and concerns are off-point, as the problem is arguably not the content of Mormon beliefs, but rather their means of expressing them. This chapter will first address the nature of America’s civil religion, its evolution over time and the ways in which other denominations have aligned their ways of making truth claims with it. Second, my paper considers the nature of revelation and “testimony” in Mormon life, and how they reflect theological views which potentially make it much harder for Mormon forms of expression to fully, civilly, adapt to American discourse. My conclusion is not hopeless: no doubt adaption will take place, eventually—but it may be a longer and more complicated road for Mormons than it has been for any other religious body seeking acceptance to America’s contested religious establishment in recent historical memory.


Sarah (Sally) Barringer Gordon, Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, teaches in the areas of church and state, property, and legal history in the law school, and American religious and constitutional history in the history department.  Sally is the author The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), and The Spirit of the Law Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America (Harvard University Press, 2010).   She is also the co-author, with Jan Shipps, of a draft article “The Sins of the Fathers: The Mountain Meadows Massacre as an Event in Religious History,” and is working on a new book-length project, tentatively titled  “The Place of Faith:  Religion and Land Ownership in American History.” Sally is particularly interested in the legal history of religion and religious peoples in American colonial and national history, with a special focus on the relationship of politics and law to belief and practice in American life.

AbstractThe Laws of God and the Lawyers

Latter-day Saints were a deeply law-bound people from the earliest period.  Yet they were not enamored of the legal profession – far from it.  They shared their dislike of lawyers with many other Americans, then and now.  But they took anti-lawyerism to new heights, and often mixed in disdain for significant parts of the American legal system, including the common law.  For the most part, Mormons relied on political rather than legal defenses of the Church and its followers. Pressure from Congress and territorial judges, including revocation of the incorporation of the Church, indictments of Brigham Young during his life, legal proceedings against Mormons for polygamy and the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the complex litigation surrounding Young’s estate all contributed to the development of a legal strategy to defend the Church.  Lawyers soon followed, both Mormon and eventually non-Mormon, as debates over Mormon distinctiveness and religious rights flowed into legal channels. A rapidly professionalizing bar created connective threads between Saints and Gentiles, establishing political as well as legal avenues for cooperation, even as they fought bitterly over “the Raid,” which saw some 3,000 indictments of Mormon men and several hundred of Mormon women, throwing the territory into economic and social disarray.  In the end, law and government in Utah followed well-worn paths.  Reconciliation and eventually statehood were negotiated and implemented in ways similar to other American jurisdictions.  Quietly but inexorably, lawyers assumed their traditional dominance, a process that might be called “the legalization of Utah.”


Max Perry Mueller is Associate Editor of Religion & Politics, a forthcoming weekly online journal, a project of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. He is currently the Eccles Foundation Mormon Studies Fellow at the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah. He is a PhD candidate in the Study of Religion at Harvard University writing a dissertation on Mormon race relations.

Abstract: Twice-told Tale’: Telling Two Histories of Mormon-Black Relations during the 2012 Presidential Election

During the 2012 presidential election cycle, as a devout Mormon attempts to unseat America’s first black president, the LDS Church’s history of racial exclusion has come into stark relief, becoming one of the most “oft-told tales” of the so-called “Mormon Problem.” Yet there are at least two histories of the LDS Church and its relationship with African Americans—even two histories that date before 1978, the year the LDS Church ended its ban on full black church membership. One history is of racial exclusion. The other history—almost never told—is one of Mormon empathy even kinship with African Americans (a kinship that was in some instances mutually expressed), created out of a shared past of persecution by “white” or “gentile” America, including the failure of the American Constitutional system to protect basic civil liberties. The second history is not a rebuttal of the first. Instead it is a parallel history that emerges from a different set of assumptions about Mormons and their church. This one “oft-told tale” of Mormon-black relations becomes “twice-told.”


Jan Shipps, one of the foremost non-Mormon scholars of Mormonism, is the author of “Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition” and a senior editor of “The Journals of William McLellin, 1831-1836,” the earliest extended account of the Mormon experience. A professor emeritus of religious studies and history at Indiana University-Purdue University, Shipps was the first non-Mormon (and first woman) elected president of the Mormon History Association. Her articles about the Latter-day Saints have been published in a variety of academic and popular journals, and she speaks frequently about Mormonism to both Mormon and non-Mormon audiences. Her book “Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons,” from the University of Illinois Press, reflects a lifetime of study and observation of one of the most dynamic faith communities in America today.

AbstractEzra Taft Benson and the Conservative Turn of “Those Amazing Mormons”

A timeline of 20th century politics in Mormondom shows a dramatic shift from liberal to conservative, from Democratic to Republican.  The move from Mormon support of the New Deal to a form of conservatism close to the John Birch Society occurred during the 1950s as the Saints made an effort to conform to the portrait of themselves as “Amazing Mormons” who didn’t smoke or drink (caffeine or alcohol),  and, most especially, who took care of their own.  Ezra Taft Benson, a member of the LDS Council of the Twelve as well as a member Eisenhower’s cabinet took the lead in this shift that brought about Mormonism’s virtual loss of memory of itself as a radically open movement that experimented with both social and economic systems in the 19th century.  The connection between, first, Apostle, then President Benson’s revisionist historiography and conservative ideology will be established in this paper by showing how this one Mormon leader’s powerful push to make the Mormon state the most conservative state in the union created a political environment in which, from time to time, the LDS Church finds it necessary to reassure its members that it is possible to be both a good Mormon and a good Democrat.


Peggy Fletcher Stack grew up in New Jersey, where religion was a constant topic of conversation in her mostly Catholic, Protestant and Jewish neighborhood. She later earned degrees in English and sociology from the University of Utah, then enriched her studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. She worked in New York as an editor at Hastings Center, a medical ethics think tank, and at Books & Religion. Stack has been producing stories for The Salt Lake Tribune’s award-winning Faith section for more than two decades, where she regularly covers the activities, practices, beliefs and contemporary issues of the LDS Church.

Abstract: Mormonism in the Media: The Inadequacy of Parallels or Why Reporters Can Get it Right and Still Be Wrong

Can Mormons gamble? Do they believe in the prosperity gospel on steroids? Are they Christians or cultists, polygamists or progressives, mindless sheep following the dictates sent out from Salt Lake City or independent thinkers who should leave their church if they disagree? And what’s with that “magic” underwear? As journalists across the country — indeed, globe — scurry to try to explain presidential candidate Mitt Romney through an understanding of his faith, they seem to be using a Protestant prism. That affects their choice of tone, perspective, sources, and doctrines to highlight. Though the facts in a given story may be essentially correct, few Mormons recognize themselves in the emerging picture. That’s because it’s the wrong model.


February 3, 2012 @ 9:00 am
February 4, 2012 @ 2:00 pm
Event Category:


International Affairs Building
Room 1501, 420 W. 118th St.
New York, NY 10027 United States
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