An Insider’s View of the Princeton Conference

By November 14, 2007

Mark Ashurst-McGee is an editor for the Joseph Smith Papers, Journals Series. His M.A. thesis, which treats Joseph Smith’s involvement in folk magic,┬áhas received some attention here in the ‘nacle, and everyone wants to know when he’ll get around to publishing it. Mark is currently a PhD. candidate at Arizona State University, writing his dissertation on Joseph Smith’s political thought. He was kind enough to provide a writeup of the recent Princeton Conference for the Juvenile Instructor.

9-10 NOVEMBER 2007

Report by Mark Ashurst-McGee

Here is a brief report on the “Mormonism and American Politics” conference hosted last weekend by Princeton’s Center for the Study of Religion.

Friday night was an historical overview of Mormonism’s involvement in American politics. Richard Bushman spoke on Joseph Smith’s involvement in politics, Sally Gordon on Mormonism and polygamy in the territorial period, Kathleen Flake on the Smoot hearings, and Jan Shipps (filling in for Phil Barlow) on how Mormonism became republican. Bushman quickly traced the trajectory he followed in RSR, with Smith being forced into the political sphere and learning the rhetoric of civil rights. He addressed the issue of the destruction of Nauvoo’s Expositor press as exposing the limits of Smith’s toleration. Bushman treated the topic with reference to the cultural work being done by Thomas Sharp in the Warsaw Signal. Smith believed that the Expositor would significantly contribute to an environment in which the probability of extralegal violence against Smith and the Saints was accelerating. Smith’s fears were not unfounded, as his subsequent murder shows (although, as Bushman did not point out, this is causally entangled in Smith’s destruction of the press). Sharp through the press was able to successfully dehumanize Smith enough that the people of the county condoned Smith’s murder. It is fine to have demagogues exploit the freedom of the press when the general populace ignores them. But when the populace follows incendiary speech into lynching, government and order are subverted. Bushman concluded by posing the question of how to maintain law and prudence in a democracy. Sally Gordon raced through the Mormon polygamy question with reference to the politics of slavery, showing how polygamist wives were viewed as slaves in bondage to their patriarchal, goat-bearded, planter-husbands. This political rhetoric failed when it became clear that Mormon women were not cooperating with their emancipators. Kathleen Flake gave a retelling of the Smoot hearings that paralleled the Romney candidacy. Smoot, like Romney, was an ideal candidate in every aspect but his religion and the question of loyalty. Jan Shipps, building on work of Phil Barlow, investigated how Mormon culture embraced the Republican party. After exploding the myth of party assignments in order to obtain statehood for Utah, she argued that Mormons gradually moved into the fold in response to several events over the years: prohibition, the New Deal, 1950s anti-communism, 1960s counterculture, and Roe v. Wade. Kathleen Flake remarked that the Mormon church owns a state in the union and the Republican Party owns the issue of states rights.

Saturday morning Noah Feldman gave the keynote address on the role of Mormon secrecy in its politics. The Mormon church developed secrecy for two reasons. First, there are the occult aspects of its sacred temple teachings. Second, the church developed secrecy to avoid persecution. Polygamy is a good example of this, as is the political kingdom of God. Americans view the Mormons with suspicion due to their secrecy about the temple and about their insider beliefs. Feldman identified this as Romney’s problem and the only explanation for why it should be any issue at all who is to be the Republican candidate. Feldman (a Jew) sympathized with the Mormon culture of secrecy as religious and as the natural response to persecution in history. Feldman did not realize-or at least did not mention-the proselytizing and milk-before-meat aspect of Mormon-gentile relations.

Many more presentations followed on Saturday, which investigated the current political climate and how Romney and the Latter-day Saints figure in it. The final presentation was by Thomas Griffith, a federal judge in Washington. Griffith’s integrity, professionalism, and commitment to American institutions were apparent and had the effect-in my view-of countering the fear of Mormons in government office.

Article filed under Announcements and Events Conference/Presentation Reports


  1. Nice write up, Mark. As I have said elsewhere, I wish I could have attended.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 14, 2007 @ 1:53 pm

  2. Thanks, Mark!

    Comment by Jared — November 14, 2007 @ 2:04 pm

  3. Interesting that Flake claimed Romney was “an ideal candidate in every aspect.” I think she’s a little off base in claiming that any such candidate exists, no matter what one’s political leanings. In any case, Flake seems to foreshadow what I’ve expected—that once Romney’s campaign is brought to an end, there will be a sizeable number of LDS who will loudly proclaim that he only lost due to “religious persecution.”

    Comment by Nick Literski — November 14, 2007 @ 3:09 pm

  4. Nick: I think that Flake understands that many Americans will not vote for Romney because of his political views. Rather, I think she’s pointing out the fact that many evangelical voters would consider voting for Romney based on his politics, but hesitate to do so because they think he belongs to a cult. That’s a different argument than the “religious persecution” that you suggest.

    But, neither you nor I was at the conference, so it’s a bit difficult to know what she really meant.

    Comment by David Grua — November 14, 2007 @ 3:28 pm

  5. Thanks for the notes, Mark. (I trust you found a place to stay…)

    Comment by Kevin Barney — November 14, 2007 @ 7:57 pm

  6. I don’t think that Ms. Flake meant that Romney was an ideal candidate for her, or even for the Church. What she meant was that for the kinds of things that the Republican party supposedly was looking for (competence, conservative positions, “presidential” appearance, weakness of the other candidates, etc.), Romney appeared to be ideal. So her question was, why isn’t he doing better in the polls.

    Of course, there are a million reasons for that and there may be a million more to explain why he doesn’t succeed–but it’s nice of Nick to choose “whining pusillanimity” as the motive that he’ll ascribe to his former co-religionists if Romney doesn’t win the nomination. It just gives me the warm fuzzies all over.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 15, 2007 @ 4:09 pm


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