I’ve written previously on ways Mormon historians can transcend the 1890 rupture and begin to conceptualize and integrate the twentieth century into narratives of Mormon history. I suggested that one way to do this is to historicize contemporary issues, such as those surrounding race, gender, and sexuality, and show how the past can illuminate the present. Some may protest that this approach is overly-presentist, but I would argue that all history is presentist to one degree or another, and as historians we should be writing histories that are useful and useable.
Some historians have put forward a narrative that postulates that Mormons at some idyllic point in the past were progressive by nature, and that it was not until the culture wars of the 1970s (women’s liberation, gay rights, etc.) that church members moved hard to the right. Others have contended that the origins of Mormon conservatism lie in the 1960s with Ezra Taft Benson’s anticommunism, while others would instead point to the anti-New Deal rhetoric emerging from the 1930s. A new dissertation recently completed at the University of Utah by Jonathan H. Moyer, “Dancing with the Devil: The Making of the Mormon-Republican Pact,” pushes the argument back even further, to the late nineteenth-century, and essentially argues that the Republican party co-opted the Latter-day Saints as part of a western strategy (similar in a way to Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy). Although I have yet to read the dissertation (it’s over 600 pages long!), I believe it will be an important contribution to what is doubtless a central theme of twentieth-century Mormon history. Here is the abstract:
The Mormon Church initially positioned itself in opposition to America’s order.
Its leaders rejected all authority but their own and demanded obedience. Already outside
the American mainstream, Mormons migrated to Mexico, but soon found themselves
locked in a contest with the nation they rejected. The Republican Party, organized to
redress racial issues, also took aim at Mormonism. Party leaders denounced polygamy
and the political control of the Mormon hierarchy and enacted measures to curtail the
church’s power. Church and state came together in a volatile clash.
Discarding the crusading zeal of the former generation, visionary Republican
leaders and pragmatic churchmen crafted a mutually advantageous arrangement.
Republicans saw the Mormons as the key to western votes. Mormons hoped for local
autonomy and the preservation of church control. The two struggled to negotiate a viable
compromise which eluded them until the contest over seating Utah Senator and Apostle
The controversy over Senator Smoot highlights how the Mormon Church
transformed itself from outlaw to insider. In resolving the Mormon question, the nation
defined the limits of religious liberty. The crisis inaugurated a new era of religious
participation in politics and political influence in ecclesiastical issues. Religious
denominations learned the value of material wealth in their quest for heavenly goals and
strengthened their political sway as they forged new alliances.
The Republican Party also changed and welcomed former adversaries into its
ranks. With a politics of inclusion, the party added formerly outcast ethnics, immigrants,
and religious groups to its winning coalition. Bartering its founding creed for a broader
appeal, it traded its goal of social justice for one of social control. The Republican Party
redefined itself, moving from a vehicle for radical reform to the embodiment of
The dissertation is available through ProQuest for those with access to university libraries. I don’t know if Moyer has immediate plans for articles or even publication of the dissertation, but maybe he’ll stop by and leave a comment.
*To be clear, I’ve focused above on Mormon Corridor Mormonism, which excludes the many Latter-day Saints who have no roots in the region. I acknowledge that Mormons in Canada, Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere do not adhere to the same western conservatism as those from the Corridor, and for that matter, that some Mormons who do have roots in the region do not fit the conservative mold (some JI bloggers, me included, are good examples of this). We need research that will problematize the totalizing discourses that underpin such overly-simplistic statements as “all Mormons are conservatives/Republicans.”