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, has 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.
MORMONISM AND AMERICAN POLITICS
CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF RELIGION
PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY
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.