Mormonism and American Politics: Curriculum for a Community Seminar

By April 21, 2016

slc-templeThis last year, as part of my position as a fellow with the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy here at the University of Missouri, I ran a seminar aimed for members of the Columbia, MO, community on Mormonism’s relationship with American politics. We just held our final meeting last week, and the entire seminar was an absolute blast. (But I may be biased.) I thought others might be interested to see what we read and discussed, and this post might serve as a resource for other scholars and onlookers.

Here was the seminar’s overview:

Mormonism has played an important role in American religious and political history. One of the few innovative sects birthed in the antebellum period that survived the nineteenth-century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has thrived over the last 180 years. Today, the Church claims over six million adherents within the United States and over fifteen million worldwide. And though those figures make Mormonism a distinct minority, the faith has had a disproportionately large impact on American political discourse even before Mitt Romney?s unsuccessful presidential candidacy. From its role in demonstrating the ?dangers? of disestablishment in the 1830s to the revision of first amendment liberties concerning religious practice in the 1870s-1880s, and from congressional debates over Apostle Reed Smoot?s senatorial office in the 1900s to the Mormon opposition to the ERA in the 1980s and 1990s, the LDS Church?s interaction with national laws offer a potent microcosm for understanding American politics in general. This reading group, then, will use Mormonism as a case study to understand the American political tradition writ large.

Below’s an outline of the eight meetings–the topics, the overview, the assigned readings, the suggested background literature, and the framing questions–followed by a few overall insights and themes that I took from the seminar. Many of the suggested readings come from the recent (and excellent) volume edited by Jana Riess and Randall Ballmer, Mormonism and American Politics (Columbia UP, 2015), which is abbreviated as MaAP. I’ve also abbreviated journals and excluded page numbers for articles, mostly because I’m lazy.

  1. September: The Politics of Mormon Scripture
    1. Overview: Joseph Smith?s introduction to the religious scene came not with a sermon or religious tract but new books of scripture that challenged the traditional boundaries of the Christian canon. What types of political claims were found in these scriptural texts? How did they relate to and diverge from their surrounding culture?
    2. Readings: 2 Nephi 5; Mosiah 2, 11, 23, 29; Alma 30; Helaman 6; 3 Nephi 6-7; 4 Nephi 1; Ether 8, 10; D&C 45:62-75; D&C 58:19-23; D&C 78; D&C 134
    3. Suggested Background Reading: Richard Bushman, ?The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution,? BYUSQ 17:1; Mark Ashurst-McGee, ?Zion in America: The Origins of Mormon Constitutionalism,? JMH 38:3.
    4. Questions: What types of political claims were found in these scriptural texts? How did they relate to and diverge from their surrounding culture? In what way do these scriptural texts exult democratic principles, and in what ways do they challenge them? Do the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith?s Revelations present a cohesive political message, or fragments of different political realities?
  2. October: The Missouri/Mormon War and the Perils of Localism
    1. Overview: One of Mormonism?s first actions was to declare Independence, Missouri, as ?Zion? and the center-place for sovereignty during the Millennium. As one might expect, the Missouri residents were not too thrilled with their new neighbors. The evolving dispute that forced Mormons out of Independence and, later, the entire state prove an important example of local rule and state sovereignty in an age where religious experimentation threatened America?s spiritual harmony.
    2. Readings: D&C 57:1-7; D&C 101, 103, 105; Manifesto of the Jackson County Mob; Sidney Rigdon, ?4th of July Sermon?; Missouri Executive Order 44 (Extermination Order); Joseph Smith to Edward Partridge, March 20, 1839.
    3. Suggested Background Reading: Matthew Lund, ?A Society of Like-Minded Men: American Localism and the Mormon Expulsion from Jackson County,? JMH 40:3.
  3. November: Joseph Smith?s Theodemocracy and the Religious Critique of Democracy
    1. Overview: A century and a half before Mitt Romney, Joseph Smith was the first Mormon to run for the American presidency. Though the level of his expectations can be debated, his political views were a potent view into religious anxiety over democracy and popular rule. Smith tried to blend the voice of God with the voice of the people through a political theology he called ?theodemocracy.? While seemingly exotic, his practical proposals had surprising affinity with other cultural critics who argued for more minority rights, federal intervention, and religious renewal.
    2. Readings: Joseph Smith, Views on the Power and Policy of the Government of the United States; Smith, ?The Glope? (essay where he discussed “theodemocracy”); excerpts from Jedediah S. Rogers, The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History (Signature, 2014).
    3. Suggested Background Reading: Richard Bushman, ?Joseph Smith?s Presidential Ambitions,? MaAP; Benjamin Park, ?Early Mormon Patriarchy and the Paradoxes of Religiosity in the Age of Jackson,? American Nineteenth Century History 14:2; Patrick Mason, ?God and People: Theodemocracy in Nineteenth-Century Mormonism,? Journal of Church and State 53:4.
    4. Questions: Were Joseph Smith?s political views a critique, revision, or extension of democratic principles? How did Smith seek to secure religious rights in America?s political structure? How do we square Smith?s public actions (running for president) with his private activities (the formation of the Council of Fifty)? What does all this tell us about the political culture of antebellum America?
  4. December: The Utah War and the Limits of Federal Power
    1. Overview: Three years before the Civil War, President James Buchanan sent the federal army to Utah to quell a supposed Mormon rebellion. After failing to receive federal support in Missouri and Illinois, Brigham Young and the Latter-day Saints hoped that they would be left alone on the fringes of American territory under their own rule of state sovereignty, yet it seemed once again that the ?Gentiles? would not let them be. These hostilities were based in false assumptions on both sides, but they did test the limits of federal power and popular sovereignty on the eve of the Civil War. What role should the government play in local differences? What happens when conflicts of power take place at the territory, state, and federal level? While many of these problems would be solved in the Civil War and during Reconstruction, the ideas were tested during a brief yet important conflict with Utah.
    2. Readings: Brigham Young et. al, “Memorial and Resolutions to the President of the United States, January 6, 1857”; various letters from the Utah War period.
    3. Suggested Background Reading: John Turner, ?Unpopular Sovereignty: Brigham Young and the U.S. Government, 1847-1877,? MaAP.
    4. Questions: Was Brigham Young and the Utah government?s political arguments based on principles or pragmatism? How did these debates foreshadow the political debates raised by the Civil War? How did these Mormon debates fit into the broader discussion of federal control and popular sovereignty?
  5. January: Polygamy, Suffrage, and the Freedom of Religious Practice
    1. Overview: When the Republican Party held its first national convention in 1856, it declared its intention to destroy the ?twin relics of barbarism?: slavery and polygamy. The former was ended in the Civil War, leaving the latter to be a focus of attention during the 1870s and 1880s. Indeed, the attempt to prosecute plural marriage tested the boundaries of religious liberty, as Mormons claimed that the First Amendment covered their marital practices. Further, during these debates over the constitutionality of moral legislation, Mormon women entered the fray as they participated in the national appeal for suffrage. We might think that today?s debates over the role of family in American society is new, but it is anything but. These debates over women?s roles in the LDS Church in the nineteenth century?both their marital practice and their women?s suffrage?offer an acute glimpse into the fraught politics of domesticity, federal reach, and freedom of religion.
    2. Orson Pratt, “Celestial Marriage,” The Seer (1853); Dialogue between Vice-President Schuyler Colfax and John Taylor, in The Mormon Question (1870); excerpts from The ExponentReynolds vs. the United States (October 1878); excerpts from George Q. Cannon, A Review of the Decision of the Supreme Court.
    3. Suggested Background Reading: Andrea Radke-Moss, ?Polygamy and Woman?s Rights: Nineteenth Century Mormon Female Activism,? from Persistence of Polygamy, Volume 2; Sarah Barringer Gordon, ??The Liberty of Self-Degradation?: Polygamy, Woman Suffrage, and Consent in Nineteenth-Century America,? JAH 83:3; Christine Talbot, JMH 37:4.
    4. Questions: What do these debates reveal about how people interpreted the government?s role in regulating domestic affairs? Why was the national government at first eager to allow Mormon to vote? Why do you think they soon regretted the decision? What is the distinction between religious ?belief? and ?practice? that was at the heart of these debates?
  6. February: Reed Smoot and the Politics of Becoming American
    1. Overview: The turn of the twentieth century is known as a period of transition for the LDS Church. After giving up the practice of polygamy and finally achieving Utah statehood, Mormons sought to enter the American mainstream. This included participating, for the first time, in America?s two-party system?Mormons had previously supported their own political party?as well as electing one of their own apostles, Reed Smoot, to the United States senate. Yet Americans were not eager to reciprocate this appeal for acceptance, and Smoot had to survive a five-year congressional trial concerning whether Mormons could be accepted as true American citizens. This month, we will discuss Mormon arguments for both political parties during the 1890s, and then examine the Reed Smoot trial.
    2. Readings: Joseph F. Smith, ?Why the People of Utah Should Vote Republican?; Charles Penrose, ?Why the People of Utah Should Vote Democrat?; Selections from the Reed Smoot trials
    3. Suggested Background Reading: Konden R. Smith, ?The Reed Smoot Hearings and the Theology of Politics: Perceiving an ?American? Identity,” JMH 35:3; Michael H. Paulos, ?Under the Gun at the Smoot Hearings: Joseph F. Smith?s Testimony,” JMH 34:4; Matthew Bowman, ?Eternal Progression: Mormonism and American Progressivism,? MaAP.
    4. Questions: What compromises did Mormonism have to make to joing the American political body? What compromises did American politicians have to make to accept them?
  7. March: Guest Visit from Laurie Maffly-Kipp on International Mormonism
    1. Overview: We were thrilled to have current MHA President Laurie Maffly-Kipp come speak to us about Mormonism’s attempt to become a global faith.
    2. Readings: Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, “The Oak and the Banyan: The ?Glocalization?of Mormon Studies,” MSR 1; Jehu Hanciles, “Would that All God’s People were Prophets: Mormonism and the New Shape of Global Christianity,” JMH 41:2.
  8. April: Mormonism and the Rise of the Religious Right
    1. Overview: Mormons eventually found acceptance into mainstream American through one particular political movement: the birth of religious conservatism following World War II. This was mostly accomplished through the vocal activism of Ezra Taft Benson who was an apostle yet active participant in the Republican Party, a supporter of the John Birch Society, and outspoken critic of progressive politics. The LDS Church then flexed its newly formed political muscles in their opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, which in many ways would be replicated decades later during California?s Proposition 8. This month, we will discuss the origins of this movement by looking at two speeches given by Benson at the apex of his political zeal, as well as the responses by Sonia Johnson, a Mormon housewife who became a strong proponent for the ERA. We will also read secondary essays that cover the movement more broadly.
    2. Readings: Ezra Taft Benson, ?The Proper Role of Government?; Benson, ?The Book of Mormon Warns America?; Excerpts from Sonia Johnson in Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings (Oxford UP, 2015).
    3. Suggested Background Reading: Jan Shipps, ?Ezra Taft Benson and the Conservative Turn of ?Those Amazing Mormons,?? MaAP; Gregory Prince, “The Red Peril, the Candy Maker, and the Apostle: David O. McKay’s Confrontation with Communism,” Dialogue 37:2; Neil J. Young, “The ERA Is a Moral Issue: The Mormon Church, LDS Women, and the Defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment,” AQ 59:3.
    4. Questions: How did Benson craft a conservative theology? What purpose did the Book of Mormon serve in Benson’s political belief? Why was communism such a threat to McKay and Benson? How did the Mormons fit into the broader rise of the religious right? How did Johnson draw from the Mormon tradition for her political argument? How was the Mormon opposition to the ERA a fulfillment of this decades-long trajectory?
  9. Alternate Final Meeting (we ran out of months!): Mitt Romney?s Run for the Presidency and Twenty-First Century Politics
    1. Overview: Mitt Romney?s run for the presidency, first in 2008 and then again in 2012, sparked what has been termed the ?Mormon Moment.? Though there have been numerous ?moments? over the past century, this most recent incarnation seemed all the more engrossing due to the increased media attention of the twenty-first century. An entire century after Reed Smoot?s hearings, were Mormons finally in a better position to be fully accepted into the political body? And while Romney?s candidacies proved unsuccessful, a new Mormon image emerged from the national discussion: that of diversity and pluralism within Mormon political culture.
    2. Readings: Damon Linker, ?The Big Test?; Mitt Romney, ?Faith in America?; Harry Reid, ?Faith, Family, and Public Service.?
    3. Suggested Background Reading: David Campbell et. al., ?A Politically Peculiar People: How Mormons Moved Into and Then Out of the Political Mainstream,? MaAP; Claudia Bushman, ?Mormon Women Talk Politics,? MaAP; Joanna Brooks, ?On the ?Underground?: What the Mormon Yes on 8 Campaign Reveals about the Future of Mormons in American Political Life,? MaAP.
    4. Questions: Have the terms changed over the past century when it comes to Mormonism’s place within the American political body?

There were many great moments throughout the seminar that I could highlight, but here are a few: dissecting how the Jackson County residents justified excluding Mormons from there area in ways that would not infringe upon the freedom of religion; discovering Joseph Smith’s quixotic presidential platform that included surprising calls for federal power and debtors’ relief; exploring how the territorial Utah debates over polygamy and women’s suffrage fit into national discussions concerning popular sovereignty and federal power; and highlighting the subtle similarities(!) between Ezra Taft Benson’s and Sonia Johnson’s political theologies. (Selfishly, I loved the fact that preparing for this seminar provided me with the materials to, perhaps one day, write a lecture series on Mormonism’s political tradition.) Overall, it was a fabulous discussion that luckily produced more light than heat–a remarkable achievement given we were discussing religion and politics!

What could I have done better? First, I wish I would have included more women’s voices throughout; as it was, we only had a few weeks that featured the writings from women. I have to do better than that, and I have ideas concerning how to do so in the future. Second, a few of the primary and secondary readings could have been shortened or replaced; reading assignments are a trial-and-error process, so I’ll be better prepared next time. As with most of my classes, I’ve learned that it is the quality, not the quantity, of reading that’s important. And third, I wish I could have included more twentieth-century material, either through one more meeting or through better organization; we never got to the civil rights crisis in detail, for instance.

I’ll close with the three central themes that I tried to emphasize with my readings and with each gathering. First, that Mormonism’s history provides an acute case study of American political issues writ large; that is, while some of the LDS Church’s past may seem unique and singular, they always fit into a broader pattern, which makes that history important in understanding the nation’s past. Second, that the boundaries between the margins (Mormonism) and the center (America’s political tradition) were always transforming and evolving; meaning, to assume a general trajectory from “outsider” to “accepted” status is a faulty errand, and that it was actually much more messy with unexpected advancements and reverses throughout the two centuries. And finally, Mormonism’s political tradition was full of dissonant and diverse voices; there was never any such thing as the Mormon political theology, just as there was never a monolithic American democratic thought. I tried to show, therefore, the vast differences within the tradition, as well as without.

Article filed under Mormon Studies Courses Pedagogy Politics


  1. This is marvelous. I’m mighty curious about who attended – did you have the same folks each time, and did everyone stick with it through all the sessions? What was the participant mix like? Is this similar to other seminars the Kinder Institute has done in past years, or did it strike out into new territory for them?

    Comment by Tona H — April 21, 2016 @ 8:08 am

  2. Spectacular, Ben. This sounds really excellent.

    Like Tona, I’d like to hear more about both the makeup of the class (were most attendees from the local LDS community, Missouri, a combination of both?) and if this model of a community seminar is something the Kinder Institute has done before? It sounds like a great way to connect with the community, and including it as part of a postdoctoral fellow’s responsibilities makes a lot of sense.

    Comment by Christopher — April 21, 2016 @ 8:17 am

  3. Thanks, Tona and Christopher. First, this is far from the first seminar of its kind with the Kinder Institute–they did two institutes last year, and this year they did three. I got the idea for this seminar after attending one last year led by Justin Dyer on CS Lewis’s political thought. The Kinder Institute is devoted to reaching out to the broader community, so these monthly seminars are one of those successful attempts. Generally, participants pay a nominal registration fee, and then the Kinder Institutes supplements that funding and helps pay for space, instruction, and a catered dinner at each meeting. I think it’s a great way to blend the town and gown.

    This seminar typically drew a consistent group of a dozen people who attended each meeting, supplemented by a rotating cast of 6-8 others who attended here and there. About 70% were LDS and heard about this through the local congregations, with the rest a balance of Mizzou faculty, grad students, and interested observers.

    Comment by Ben P — April 21, 2016 @ 8:50 am

  4. Of course there would be an awesome seminar a year before I could get to it. *sigh*

    Comment by Katherine Pollock — April 22, 2016 @ 12:12 pm

  5. How did the fact that the seminar was held in Missouri affect it? Was there special interest in the Missouri/Mormon War, for instance? This detailed outline is marvelous.

    Comment by Ardis — April 22, 2016 @ 3:52 pm

  6. Great question, Ardis. The Mormon/Missouri conflict was certainly a popular story here, but it also meant that they were mostly familiar with it. So I made sure to address it from a different angle: that of the non-Mormon settlers of the county. That seemed to spark discussion. The other time location came in to play was when we discussed Benson’s anti-communism, as that conservative legacy was not as strong in the midwest as it was in Utah, so they were somewhat startled with that history.

    Also, I should have mentioned that the documents I used during the Utah War class were provided by Ardis P, the best archival sleuth we have in the period. I strongly recommend her services for anyone else working on these types of projects.

    Comment by Ben P — April 22, 2016 @ 8:30 pm


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