Mormons and Politics at Columbia

By February 4, 2012

On the fifteenth floor in a Columbia University building overlooking a majestic New York City skyline, some of the most well known scholars of Mormonism (–and me–) gathered to present papers on the role of Mormonism and American politics during this so-called ?Mormon Moment.? Professors and students from Columbia and other NYC-area universities, a handful of LDS missionaries (including a JIer?s parents!) and reps from local and international news outlets, braved unreliable elevators to bring the large lecture hall to capacity on both days of the conference.

According to co-organizer, Jana Riess, Columbia?s Institute for Religion, Culture & Public Life had hoped to hold such an event for years. And with Romney?s train to the nomination in Tampa back on track?CNN just flashed that Romney won the Nevada Caucuses by twenty-three points?timing could not have been better. Dr. Riess, her co-organizer and former doctoral advisor, Randall Balmer, as well as the Institute?s staff, deserve heaps of praise for a smoothly run and stimulating event, the fruits of which will most certainly be enjoyed throughout this election season and beyond.

In the fog of post-conference exhaustion?and sitting in JFK waiting for the long flight back to Zion?my head swims in as many questions as it does answers. And for the better, I think. For at the intersection of religion and politics, capital ?T? truths (like those that might be shared at a testimony meeting) are hard to come by. But let me offer eleven tentative take-aways from the conference.

1. The Mormons have always needed politics.
Richard Bushman presented on Smith?s 1844 campaign, understanding ?General Smith? as a reluctant candidate for the White House. Failing to get the leading American politicians of the day to guarantee to protect the persecuted saints, Smith threw his hat into the ring initially as an act of desperation.

Smith had initially thought he could establish his latter-day society with an attitude of ?indifference? to the American political community. Persecution proved that Zion needed the protection of America for it flourish. Smith?s belief in the Constitution as sacred comes out of his experience that those holding the ?keys? to Constitutional authority had failed to uphold their ?callings,? leaving the saints, and for that matter the ?bondsmen,? the immigrant and the orphan in the lurch. But for Smith the genius of the Constitution?the key to it?was that it was a design of unity

2. Mormons have always needed the law, and even lawyers.
Sally Barringer Gordon (let me just interject my great admiration for the way she thinks, writes and speaks??okay I?m done with sychophantry) told the tale that Mormons used law, instead of war, to make political change. While Brigham hated lawyers, Mormons in Utah used law (and eventually trained up their own lawyers) instead of violence to keep control over Zion, protect the imprisoned polygamists, and eventually create a Utah that was very much in line (legally and politically) with the rest of America.
Sally could really make this into an important intervention into the scholarship of Mormons, Americanization of Utah and American legal history in general. How many books have been written celebrating (or at least studying) the Nauvoo Legion, Zion?s Camp, Danites, and the Mormon Battalion? We need a book about the ?army of Mormon lawyers,? a group might have been more influential than any one of the paramilitary branches of Zion in forming Utah. Often these lawyers, as Sally pointed out, were Mormon ?outsiders? (Democrats, monogamists) and this gave them the standing in the eyes of the rest of America to ?stand at the bar? and defend their brethren.

All is not well in this story however. Women?the supposed victims of the abuses of polygamy?were often silenced during the polygamy trials. Sister wives were also left without a home to hang their bonnett in when Utah made polygamy a felony in the Utah Constitution.

3. Mormons have not always been Republicans?self-sufficient and ?Amazingly? so!
Utahans benefited from the New Deal programs as much as any other American group. Jan Shipps points out that Ezra T. Benson?s anti-Communism (and anti-big government) politics led to a view of the Mormons as ?amazing? (a reference to a 1952 Coronet article)?that through pluck and Mormon communitarianism?Utah passed through the Great Depression without the needing the ?dole.? Untrue. In fact while the ?Brethren? called for the defeat of FDR, the Mormons in the pews voted for FDR because they benefited from his policies.

4. Mormon history is both one of racial exclusion and inclusion. The most junior member of the conference presenters (Max Perry Mueller) argued that the media, which will only get more and more obsessed with the history of Mormon racial exclusion (Barack v. Mitt?do the math), needs to understand that there are at least two histories of Mormon race relations. One of racial exclusion (the priesthood ban, Joseph Smith?s anti-abolitionist screeds, Utah slavery, the Book of Mormon?s racialized language, reluctance to embrace civil rights) and one of racial inclusion (the mid-nineteenth century view of race as mutable, slavery as ?redemptive,? Joseph Smith as an abolitionist, Mormon historians helping to overturn the priesthood ban).

5. Mormon women?s voices in politics have been key to the formation of Mormons? political place in the world.
(Excuse me on this one?I was being interviewed for Austrian Radio?they couldn?t pass up a chance to interview an American ?Max Mueller??though they were upset I didn?t speak German?I?ll rely on others to fill this one in more for me).
Claudia Bushman has shown that the Mormon women?s voice (singular) is never unified, striking one single note. And even in a patriarchy, Mormon women, sometimes more than Mormon men have protected ?Mormon? politics (fighting against anti-polygamy laws of the 1870s, fighting against ERA in the 1970s).
But the Mormon women?s political voice is almost always ?doubled??that Mormon political diversity can best be understood by looking at moments of Mormon political intervention (in which we find devout LDS women on both sides of an issue?think ERA here).

6. Mormons speak on political issues differently in public than they do in private. Joanna Brooks made perhaps the most interesting theoretical intervention at the conference by introducing us (or at least introducing me) to the idea of Mormon ?undergrounding? political rhetoric. During the Prop 8 campaign, Mormons voiced fundamentally different concerns about the possible results of the legalization of gay marriage. In public, Mormons reached out to form ecumenical relationships with ?co-belligerents”: conservative Christians (Catholics, black Protestants), based on the idea that gay marriage would threaten the sanctity of marriage. But internal discussions showed that LDS leaders forwarded a sort of ?paranoid politics? (to use Hofstatder?s famous concept) about what gay marriage would mean for Mormons in particular?including the state forcing Mormons to perform same sex marriages, which would in turn lead Mormons to shut down temples to prevent such intrusions of unsanctioned marriages (and unholy people).

7. It is impossible to draw a straight line between Mitt Romney?s Mormonism and his beliefs in American exceptionalism.
Philip Barlow cautioned scholars and the media to not equate Romney?s Mormonism (with its belief in America as the most sacred space on the planet, the location of both time?s beginning and time’s end) with his doctrine of American exceptionalism. Prof. Barlow listed many, many religious and politically motivated views outside of Mormonism that make America the axis mundi of God?s will on the earth (John Winthrop?s City on a Hill, Reagan?s re-appropriation of this concept). And then let?s not forget Governor Romney?s intense competitiveness (which Barlow knows firsthand, having served with him in the Belmont ward). Mitt wants what he loves (Bain, his boys, Belmont and America) to succeed. There is more of Mitt in American exceptionalism than Mormonism, suggests Barlow.

8. Mormons are a peculiar people?and are glad for it.
David Campbell, the co-author of American Grace, pulled from his survey work with Bob Putnam (and new surveys focused in particular on Mormons) to show that Mormons love being Mormons more than any other religious group. This ?ingroup? love is so powerful that it can be compared to the ?ingroup? affection among Latinos and African Americans?yes Mormons? self-directed affection looks more like an ethnic group than a religious group.

9. Mormons continue to have a hard time becoming part of the American sacred community. And according to Russell Arben Fox, this has as much to do with Mormons’ own self affirmation as it does anti-Mormonism: in particular the belief in personal and corporate revelation that holds Mormonism to be the ?only true church.?
Because Saints say this sort of thing at least once a month (at fast and testimony meetings) this epistemological self-confidence is going to affect how Mormons interact with ?mainline? American civil religion, which at its core publicly recognizes the religious validity of a pluralism of faiths.

10. Journalists don?t get Mormons, and can?t write about them accurately, because they view Mormonism through a ?Protestant lens? (Bob Orsi, and J Z Smith would assert that most religious studies scholars fail for the same reason).
Peggy Fletcher Stack, the amazing religion writer from the Salt Lake Tribune gives us a list of the ways most journalists (most here, but not all) fail to grasp Mormon complexity (most of these have to do with the particular nature of Mormon vocabulary):

(I stole this from the note our dear friend Kristine H. from Dialogue recorded):

1. Misusing Mormon vocabulary
2. Misusing religious vocabulary that Mormons deploy differently
3. Representing folk belief as official doctrine
4. Misunderstanding hierarchical relationships, rotating nature of lay clergy
5. Regarding post-Mormons as unproblematic whistleblowers.

11. Mormons are Progressives!
I will give the shortest explanation to this because I have to get on a plane (and because Matt B. explains this in his new book The Mormon People). Mormon progressivism has everything to do with Mormon high anthropology (eternal progression) and Mormon emergence into the American political scene during the progressive era.

What do you think of these ideas?


Article filed under Conference/Presentation Reports JIers in Print Miscellaneous State of the Discipline


  1. Excellent summary. I was only able to be present for Barlow and Campbell, and arrived just at the end of Q&A on Saturday. Wish I’d caught PFStack’s presentation.

    I’d certainly agree that journalists have problems reporting on religion. Some of it is outsider perspective, some from lack of specialization (NYU offers a joint MA program in Journalism and Religious Studies), and some due to the constraints and traditions of journalism (issues of space, conflict, etc.)

    Comment by Ben S — February 4, 2012 @ 7:38 pm

  2. Thanks a ton for taking and posting these notes, Max.

    Comment by Jared T — February 4, 2012 @ 8:36 pm

  3. Thanks for the notes! Wish I could have been there.

    Comment by the narrator — February 4, 2012 @ 10:09 pm

  4. Just wanted to elaborate on the six points in Peggy Fletcher Stack’s discussion of things that journalists get wrong:

    1. Misunderstanding/misusing LDS vocabulary (apostle, presidents)
    2. Misusing common terms that mean different things to Mormons (i.e. “seminary”)
    3. Misunderstanding relationships between GAs and local leaders
    4. Presuming a “bishop” (or other local leaders) have the same power and role as a Protestant miniater does
    5. Mistaking folk doctrines for core beliefs (sometimes almost wholly arbitrarily)
    6. Treating all former members as unbiased whistleblowers

    All in all, an excellent set of talks!

    Comment by Michael H. — February 4, 2012 @ 10:12 pm

  5. And some other non-academic hangers on showed up as well.

    And no need for modesty, Max, your presentation was insightful and well done. A couple of additional points that you probably considered but might not have fit into your presentation:

    What did “blackness” mean in Middle Eastern culture? There weren’t any “blacks” in the Book of Mormon–not in the sense that a modern reader is apt to think when first encountering the book.

    And your point about the inner “blackness or whiteness” being detached from skin color is supported powerfully by the Book of Mormon itself–see, e.g., the people of Jershon, Samuel the Lamanite, the people described in 4th Nephi when there were “no manner of -ites.”

    Jan Shipps had some interesting things to say (about Mormons and the “dole”)–but I wonder what effects other perceptions of Democrats have on the increasing identification of Mormons with the Republican party. Do Mormons view Democrats still (n the immortal words of Spiro T Agnew? as the party of Abortion, Amnesty and Acid? (That was amnesty for draft dodgers in Canada, not Mexican immigrants)?

    Comment by Mark B. — February 4, 2012 @ 10:25 pm

  6. Michael H.

    Thanks for catching this. Yes, this is a better list of what Peggy said regarding some journalists!

    Comment by Max — February 4, 2012 @ 10:31 pm

  7. Mark B.:

    This is one of the perplexities regarding charges of racism in the Book of Mormon: there are no Africans in it at all, unlike the Book of Abraham, which would be a much better source if people wanted to talk about anti-African sentiment in early Mormonism. People should remember that, for better or for worse, the curse of dark skin mentioned in the BoM was supposedly present in some populations in the early parts of the BoM, but quickly becomes problematized by the sermon in Jacob 3 and later, as Max pointed out, completely breaks down symbolically and in reality.

    From a Mormon perspective, whether these parts of the BoM even provide a rationale for regarding Native Americans as having a non-white skin color might even be debatable (though I think this was assumed back then).

    Comment by Michael H. — February 5, 2012 @ 12:36 am

  8. Fantastic, Max; many thanks for sharing these notes. Lots to chew on here.

    Comment by Ben P — February 5, 2012 @ 9:59 am

  9. Great write-up, Max–many thanks. And it was great meeting you as well! I may write up something for BCC about the conference, but you’re probably already hit all the main points very well.

    Comment by Russell Arben Fox — February 5, 2012 @ 10:52 am

  10. Thanks, Max. Great writeup.

    Comment by WVS — February 5, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

  11. Thanks Max. Time to learn German!

    What is also missed is the very positive LDS attitude toward “Lamanites” or Native Americans as a blessed and chosen people who God loved so much that we went through all the trouble of the Book of Mormon. The priesthood ban has its origin in significant part due to a desire to compromise to insure that Native Americans could not be enslaved (a common practice that Brigham Young opposed). There are indeed two narratives regarding race relations — and an entire race (actually differing sub-group identities) that rarely gets included. Native Americans rarely seem to count in this dialogue because they are politically underrepresented and their voice is largely ignored in American politics — even in discussions of race relations.

    Comment by Blake — February 5, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

  12. Sigh – I wish I’d been there too, among such wonderful and thoughtful commentators. Thanks for being our fly on the wall, Max.

    Comment by Tona H — February 5, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

  13. Blake–

    Thanks for your comments. My response is, wait to see my dissertation in which I answer these concerns (and lacuna in our understanding of Mormon racial thought) directly. I did speak to this during my presentation, especially the real “problem” BY was trying to solve with the introduction of slavery into the territory.

    Comment by Max — February 5, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

  14. I finally got a chance to sit down and read through this, Max. Great stuff, and I’m sorry to have missed the conference.

    Also, my parents had a wonderful time.

    Comment by Christopher — February 6, 2012 @ 8:34 am

  15. Yes, thanks Max.

    Comment by Ryan T. — February 6, 2012 @ 8:47 am

  16. Will there be a more detailed record of the conference, e.g. videos on YouTube, a transcript online, an ebook?

    Comments on:
    2. Brigham Young once spoke in the Old Tabernacle about lawyers: “Their heart is as black as the Ace of Spades. They love sin, and roll it on their tongue as a sweet morsel. They are a stink in the nostril of God and the angels, and all who agree with me, say Amen!” The recorder then notes “Three thousand vboices unitedly said ‘Amen’.” You should see the book Zion in the Courts, by Ed Firmage of the University of Utah Law School (now retired) and Colin Mangrum of Creighton University Law School in Omaha, a legal history of the early Church. I understand from Colin that they had to cut down the original manuscript substantially before it could be punished, so there may be some potential articles made out of those excised portions that bear on your topic.

    3. Oscar W. McConkie, Jr., who was a partner at Kirton McConkie, the main law firm for the Church, brother of Bruce and the Utah campaign manager for JFK, told a group of U of U law students that his father, former Speaker of the Utah House and a Democrat, that when Utah was granted statehood, and the People’s Party was dissolved, the Brethren encouraged members to join the two national political parties, but most enrolled as Democrats, because Republicans had led the persecution of polygamists. McConkie said that at one stake conference, after seeing the disappointing sign up for Republican voters, the visiting general authority said “Brothers and Sisters, i want you to know that the Lord wants some Republicans, too.” “And ever since then,” Oscar Sr. said, “the Republicans have thought they were God’s chosen peaople!” In fact, when I was an intern at the Hinckley Institute at the U of U in 1972, the Utah vote was pretty evenly split, so that Utah voted to reelect both Richard Nixon and popular Democratic Governor Cal Rampton (for an unprecedented third term!). However, with the McGovern campaign, the radical left wing of the Democrats who had rioted in Cjhicago took over leadership of the party, and swung it over to the left, causing many Mormons to become Republicans by default.

    4. I am dumbfounded that most discussions about “Mormonism and Race” act as though there are only two races, whites and Africans. The refusal to ordain blacks was an anomaly because the Church had no problem baptizing and ordaining American Indians, Polynesians, Asians, and Hispanics, some for over 150 years. Missions to Hawaii were very active in the 1850s, and led to the establishment of Laie and the Mormon town there that preceded the temple and the college. For that matter, when Some reporter asks Mitt Romney why he didn;t walk out of the church over the ban on ordination of blacks, he could respond “I felt the same way that black Mormons did: That the Church was true, even if this one feature of it was troubling and inexplicable.” The news media have never, so far as I know, published the story of any black Mormon who was a member before June of 1978.

    7. I beg to differ on this one. I am about the same age as Mitt, and my experience growing up in the Church has been that the belief in teh special mission of America in God’s plan for history has been a strong continuing theme. I think that is the tie between Ezra Taft Benson’s love for the Book of Mormon and his own view of patriotism and politics. You don;t have to be Mitt to see divine providence in America’s leadership of the world. I was born in Japan as a direct result of World War II, and Japan is a much better and freer place because America, rather than the USSR, conquered it.

    8. Mormons love themselves, but Putnam’s survey also shows they love the people of OTHER denominiations more than any other church loves its own outsiders. That is in spite of the fact that everyone HATES Mormons (on average).

    9. Most Mormons who have not been members of other churches have a hard time understanding how they think, and perceives that they are hostile to him (which is true in many cases). Recognizing the virtuous and good tings in those other churches takes effort for a Mormon.

    10. I agree that reporters think about Mormons using a buncvh of Protestant assumptions. they THINK that Mormons ought to think and behave the way Protestants do. an example was the article done for a Newsweek cover story in 2008, in which the reporter wastes the first half page of the article remarking how Romney did not respond to a statement that the building where his branch used ot meet in Detroit was located and had been abandoned. The reporter expected Romney to do the Protestant thing and reminisce about his old pastor, and tell some heartwarming story. Instead, Romney said, “that’s interesting” and nothing else. The reporter was clueless that the “pastor” for that small branch was probably Goerge Romney! The same problem permeates works like Mormon America, by the Ostlings. They remark that they don’t see how Mormons can stand to go to Sacrament meetings or General conference because the speakers are so “boring”.

    11. Absolutely true. If the Democrats had not become the party of abortion, fornication, and homosexual marriage, there would be a lot more Mormons vboting that way.

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — February 9, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

  17. the party of abortion, fornication, and homosexual marriage

    I’d like to offer a comment worthy of this observation, but I’m having trouble thinking of something dumb enough.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 11, 2012 @ 10:29 am

  18. Regarding comments 17 and 16, and assuming that point number 11 of comment 16 is not an instance of sarcasm, I can think of plenty of dumb things to say.

    For example: on the matter of fornication, the hypocrisy of the leadership of the House in impeaching Bill Clinton (I know, I know, for “lying” about his actions, not for the actions themselves) indicates that Democrats have no monopoly on fornication.

    On abortion: Bill Clinton stated that Democrats believe that abortion should be safe, legal and rare — which is the position of the LDS Church. The Church’s allowance for the possibility of abortion puts it at odds with all its Protestant and Catholic allies in opposing gay marriage.

    And on gay marriage: the Church has more than once said that it is not opposed to civil unions allowing gay men and women the same legal rights that heterosexual couples have. Again, that puts it at odds with at least some of those allies, like those who are working to convince African nations to make homosexual activity punishable by death.

    Dumb enough for you, SC?

    Comment by Dennis Clark — February 29, 2012 @ 1:43 am


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