Mormon Studies in the Classroom: Mormonism and American Politics

By May 1, 2014

General JSThough the Romney Moment is over, the intersections between Mormonism and American politics remains a potent topic for research and discussion. In this theoretical course, which I have yet to have the opportunity to teach, I would aim to capitalize on this interest and introduce important themes from American history.

Course Objective

The goal of this course is to explore key tensions in America’s dynamic history of Church and State, with Mormonism serving as a case study. We will cover the entire historical sweep of the Mormon moment, from Joseph Smith to Mitt Romney. Throughout, Mormons and Mormonism will not be presented as aberrations to the American tradition, but as embodiments of its key features. Though there has been a temptation in the past to characterize the LDS faith as an external dissent from or challenge to the American mainstream, students will learn that the issues highlighted through the Mormon Church’s confrontation with the United States’s political establishment and democratic ideals are part and parcel of American history in general. Attention will be given to political ideals found within scriptural texts (like the critique of capitalism found within the Doctrine and Covenants), the ideas of specific individuals’ political thought (like that of Joseph Smith), particular moments of conflict (like the Utah war), unique theological strains (like the nebulous idea of theodemocracy), heightened moments of debate (like Reed Smoot’s hearings), foundational periods of transition (like Mormonism’s loud response to the Cold War), and the continued tensions of exclusion/inclusion (like during Mitt Romney’s presidential runs). Students will be expected to not only demonstrate a nuanced understanding of Mormonism’s relationship to American politics, but also the larger tensions of American culture’s perpetual dance between Church and State.

Primary Sources

(You’ll notice that there are many more sources included below that could be used in an undergraduate class. But imagine this is a perfect world where students are eager to engulf numerous texts!)

Students will be presented with a wide variety of sources. In the first week, they will perform close readings of Mormon scriptural texts, including the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. Close attention will be given to the texts surrounding Joseph Smith’s presidential run, including his Views on the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States and Appeal to the Green Mountain Boys. (And if the JSP folk act quickly, perhaps the Nauvoo Council of Fifty minutes, which could be paired with some documents contained in the forthcoming Signature volume.) For Brigham Young, students will engage his manuscript titled “Beating Against the Air”–it is a long and fascinating letter written by Young and his scribes in the midst of their 1852 battle with territorial delegates that demonstrates their 1) conflict with US government officials, yet their 2) continued commitment to American ideals. Extended time will be spent with Mormon women’s fight for suffrage, including selections from the Exponent newspaper. For the transition period, we will engage two pamphlets written by Mormon leaders in the 1790s, one by Joseph F. Smith (on why Mormons should be Republic) and the other by Charles Penrose (on why Mormons should be Democrats). Transcripts from the Reed Smoot trial will also provide important insight into that conflict. For the mid-20th century turn to conservatism, students would read several speeches by Ezra Taft Benson (including “The Proper Role of Government,” “Civil Rights–Tool of Communist Deception,” and “The Book of Mormon Warns America”) as well as competing speeches from Hugh B. Brown. The writings of Sonia Johnson will be engaged while discussing the battle over the ERA. And finally, the most recent few decades will be covered through public statements from the Chuch (including their Newsroom statement on “Political Neutrality”), speeches by Mitt Romney (including his “Faith in America” address), Harry Reid’s BYU forum address, a selection of contemporary writings by non-Mormon observers (like Damon Linker’s “The Big Test”), and the varieties of contemporary Mormon political thought (from Warner Woodworth to Connor Boyack).

And throughout the course, both in readings and especially in lectures, I will draw from the rich collection of historical images collected by Jared Farmer and included in his two e-books.

Secondary Sources

(The same qualification for my primary sources–that I list way too many–also applies here, though perhaps even moreso.)

As there is not a single monograph that engages Mormonism’s political varieties from its founding to the present day–though Bringhurst and Foster’s Quest for the Presidency covers individual Mormon would-be politicians, and Jana Reiss and Randy Balmer’s forthcoming edited collection will offer case studies from the past two centuries–I will rely on small monographs and individual articles for various periods and issues. For Joseph Smith, Mark Ashurst-McGee’s “Zion is America: the Origins of Mormon Constitutionalism,” Patrick Mason’s “Reflections on Early Mormonism, Violence, & the State,” and portions from Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling will prove useful. For the nineteenth century in general, Patrick Mason’s “God and People: Theodemocracy in Nineteenth-Century Mormonism” and D. Michael Quinn’s “Theocratic Beginnings.” For the early Utah period, students can compare the drastically contrasting interpretations found in Ron Walker’s “Affairs of the Runaways” articles and the introduction from Will Bagley and David Bigler’s The Mormon Rebellion. Sally Gordon’s The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict will serve as the primary monograph for the postbellum period (and remains, in my opinion, the best book in Mormon studies, and one which every student should read). Selections from Christine Talbot’s A Foreign Kingdom: Mormons and Polygamy in American Political Culture will be used to buttress discussions over women’s suffrage. For the transition period, Kathleen Flake’s Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle will serve as a primary text, with selections from Thomas Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition providing insight to the broader transformation. The mid-twentieth century will be cobbled together with excerpts from Greg Prince’s work on David O’McKay and Michael Quinn’s work on J. Reuben Clark. As we will spend extensive time on the ERA debate, students will read Martha Bradley’s Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and Equal Rights. (The length of that book is the only thing that makes me hesitant to assign this underappreciated classic.) And finally, we will engage the current political culture with David Campbell, John Green, and Quinn Monson’s soon-to-be-released Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics. Phew, now I need a breather!

Class Activities

I have a number of activities percolating in my mind, but I’ll share one here. After our discussion on the Reed Smoot trials (where we will read minutes from the trials, contemporary analysis of the conflict, and Kathleen Flake’s book), students will perform a mock debate over a related issue. Is it a good idea for a Mormon apostle to serve as a senator, and is it our job to determine their primary allegiance? While the answer seems clear to us in our modern pluralistic mindset (especially as we are ensconsed in the tradition that was, in part, founded on the Smoot hearings), students will be asked to make arguments as if they lived in 1904-1907. The class will be divided into two groups, for and against, and prepare two components: first, a political commercial that argues their point and is meant for public (ca. 1905) consumption; second, participate in a hearing in which they present their position and defend their ideas upon cross-examination. Grades will be assessed based on how the students captured the historical issues at stake.

(And in brief, another possible activity would be for students to prepare their own “Faith in America” speech as if they were in Mitt Romney’s shoes.)

So, there you have it. Again, way too much here for an actual undergraduate class–perhaps I should pretend it is a graduate course–but there are materials from which to build, I think.

Article filed under Mormon Studies Courses Politics


  1. Sounds like a fantastic course (courses)! Hard to go wrong with Gordon, Flake, and Prince. Glad to see Johnson included as well.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 1, 2014 @ 7:45 am

  2. This is a class that I would take Ben. To sit at your feet and learn of politics and religion would be a pleasure.

    Comment by Guy Edwards — May 1, 2014 @ 11:42 am

  3. Whew is right… Do you envision this as a course that someone with no prior knowledge of Mormon history could take or is meant to be a course for those with a basic understanding of Mormonism.

    Comment by Amanda — May 1, 2014 @ 12:21 pm

  4. This looks like a great introduction. As you map out your proposed course, and if you have room, you might to include the role of political parties, the impact of civil rights and race issues, the work of Mormons in the nation’s capital, the debates and changes unleashed by Proposition 8 and the response of members to the idea of the constitution hanging by a thread in the last days.

    Comment by sterflu — May 1, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

  5. Amanda: when I was originally planning this course, it was for a setting in which most students had a cultural background in the Mormon region, though they would lack background in academic Mormon history.

    Thanks, Joey, Guy, and Sterflu.

    Comment by Ben P — May 1, 2014 @ 3:51 pm


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