Although Mitt Romney avoided a detailed discussion of Mormonism in his “Faith in America” speech, he did include a brief reference to Brigham Young and the trek west. Romney situated Mormon history within a narrative of religious intolerance in American history:
Today’s generations of Americans have always known religious liberty. Perhaps we forget the long and arduous path our nation’s forbearers took to achieve it. They came here from England to seek freedom of religion. But upon finding it for themselves, they at first denied it to others. Because of their diverse beliefs, Ann Hutchinson was exiled from Massachusetts Bay, a banished Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, and two centuries later, Brigham Young set out for the West. Americans were unable to accommodate their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others to different faiths. In this, they were very much like those of the European nations they had left.
It was in Philadelphia that our founding fathers defined a revolutionary vision of liberty, grounded on self evident truths about the equality of all, and the inalienable rights with which each is endowed by his Creator.
Richard John Neuhaus noted at First Things that Romney’s “story line doesn’t quite hold up, of course, since Brigham Young was almost a century after the constitutional founding. The implication is that, in the exclusion of the Mormons, we have an instance of America backsliding.” There is a bit of a chronology problem here. In Romney’s construction, Americans “at first denied” religious freedom to others. It’s easy enough to discuss Hutchinson and Williams, because they occurred before the Constitution. But by including Young and the Mormons in the equation, Romney suggests that the Constitution has not always been enough “to accomodate [Protestant] commitments to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of other to different faiths.”
Historian of American religion Paul Harvey has suggested that “one of the most – maybe the most – fundamental paradox and tension of American religious history is the fault line between religious freedom and democracy on the one hand, and religiously-sanctioned intolerance and repression on the other.” Harvey mentions that Native American and African American writers have explored this tension, but he overlooks Mormon contributions to the question. Joseph Smith, for example, wrote not long after the Mormon expulsion from Missouri that it was a travesty that these persecutions had occurred in America, a land
whose institutions are the theme of philosophers and poets, and held up to the admiration of the whole civilized world. In the midst of all these scenes, with which we were surrounded, a persecution, the most unwarrantable, was commenced; and a tragedy, the most dreadful, was enacted, by a large portion of the inhabitants, of one of those free and independent States, which comprise this vast republic; and a deadly blow was struck at the institutions, for which our Fathers had fought many a hard battle, and for which, many a Patriot had shed his blood; and suddenly, was heard, amidst the voice of joy and gratitude for our national liberty, the voice of mourning, lamentation and woe. Yes, in this land, a mob, regardless of those laws, for which so much blood had been spilled, dead to every feeling of virtue and patriotism, which animated the bosom of freemen; fell upon a people whose religious faith was different from their own; and not only destroyed their homes, drove them away, and carried off their property, but murdered many a free born son of America. A tragedy, which has no parrallel in modern, and hardly in ancient times; even the face of the Red man would be ready to turn pale at the recital of it.
Smith no doubt exaggerates his case here, but I think that the core of his argument is sound. In theory America is a land without boundaries for tolerance, but in practice there have been borders erected and transgression of those borders too often has resulted in violence.
Romney of course does not invoke these darker moments from our nation’s past “for the past’s own sake.” Rather, he invokes the past to tell us about the present. Yes, we’ve seen much greater toleration in recent decades, but Romney suggests that “we [not] forget the long and arduous path our nation’s forbearers took to achieve it.”
 Joseph Smith, “Extract from the Private Journal of Joseph Smith, Jr.,” Times and Seasons, November 1839, 9.