Mormonism in American politics

Mar 23 2012 - 3:45pm


Art by Phil Cannon, for the Standard-Examiner
Art by Phil Cannon, for the Standard-Examiner

As Mitt Romney fights for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, his Mormon faith has emerged an important political criterion for a segment of voters in early primary states. But this is not the first time a Mormon candidate has been politically hamstrung by his faith, a Mormon apostle named Reed Smoot faced similar challenges between the years 1903-07 after elected to the U.S. Senate by the Utah State Legislature in 1903.

National polls since 2008 consistently show a bipartisan minority of the American electorate who will not vote for a Mormon candidate. This is problematic for Mitt Romney, since a recent Pew poll that asked Americans to describe each GOP candidate in one-word indicated that 60 percent of respondents used the word "Mormon" to identify Romney, the highest one-word identification for any Republican candidate.

Furthermore, exit polls taken in early primaries, particularly in Southern States, indicate that ardent Evangelical Christians vote against Romney in large pluralities; instead voting for two Catholic candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. In Gingrich's case, evangelicals voted for him despite his recent conversion away from evangelicalism to Catholicism, and in spite his history of marital infidelity and multiple marriages.

Religious leaders in early primary states have demarcated Mormonism from Christianity, stating Mormons are not Christians. One evangelical leader in Iowa explained that "80 percent of evangelicals will not vote for Romney in a contested primary" while another in South Carolina declared that Christians would rather vote for an adulterer with multiple past marriages than for a Mormon who falsely claims to be Christian. Even Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama asserted before his state's vote that Romney's Mormonism would be a problem for Romney in the South during the primaries.

Additionally, other non-clerical critics have used national venues to draw attention to some of Mormonism's more unique doctrines and practices. For instance, New York Times columnist Charles Blow ridiculed sacred temple undergarments worn by devout Mormons when disagreeing with Romney, tweeting "stick that in your magic underwear." Also, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel implored Romney to speak out against the church for its baptizing of holocaust victims for the dead in proxy ceremonies performed in temples. Other researchers have published articles aimed to place political pressure on the church to clarify or redefine its past positions social issues such as race and women.

Mormonism, as a phenomenon of national politics, has a long history dating back to the 1800s when the church was founded. Beginning in 1862 and extending four decades, the federal government passed several pieces of onerous legislation intended to quell the practice of plural marriage, which the church ended in 1890. Additionally, Utah's quest for statehood occupied the national conversation for a protracted 45-year period. Statehood was eventually achieved in 1896, but only after the church proved it had discontinued the practice of polygamy.

Most relevant, however, were Senate hearings, referred to as the Reed Smoot hearings, held in Washington between 1904 and 1906.

After Mormon Apostle Reed Smoot was elected to U.S. Senate, a political firestorm erupted. Smoot held all the constitutional qualifications to serve as a senator, but millions of citizens inundated Washington with petitions demanding Smoot's removal. Petitioners alleged that Smoot was unable to serve effectively because he was a high-ranking leader of a law-breaking and un-American church. Other protesters incorrectly claimed Smoot was secretly a polygamist, when Smoot had been a lifelong monogamist. Skeptical women throughout America viewed the church's former association with polygamy as a threat to the "sanctity of the American home" and relied on petitions as a proxy for voting. The issue was referred to a Senate sub-committee, and formal hearings began in 1904. Ultimately, it was determined that the Senate had the power to expel Smoot, but only by a two-thirds majority up-or-down vote.

Religious leaders also used Smoot's election to deride aspects of Mormonism that have similarities to today. As reported in Los Angeles Times, Reverend Wishard inaccurately instructed Methodist ministers: "The greatest source of revenue in the Mormon church is the baptizing of living relatives, who stand sponsor for relatives who have died, outside the church. They exact a heavy fee for this service, and it is going steadily on every day at four centers in Utah."

Also, an editorial writer for the Christian Observer opined that "The Mormon Church is one of the bitterest enemies to evangelical religion, and the deadliest foe to Republican institutions in this country."

Despite these political allegations, Smoot was allowed to remain in the Senate by a 42-28 roll-call vote of senators in 1907. Smoot subsequently served five terms in Congress, gaining historical fame at the end of his career when his signature legislation passed, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. Smoot, who like Romney was also a successful businessman turned politician, held all the constitutional qualifications to serve as a senator.

Weeks after Smoot's vindication, he publicly celebrated "I pray that this will be the last great battle for the upholding of our Constitution guaranteeing religious liberty to all citizens. I hope it will never occur again in ... the United States, where a man's religious belief is brought in question ... and I believe it will not."

Smoot's belief that his Washington victory would remove political barriers for future Mormon candidates held firm until Romney's run for the presidency.

And now that he is the favorite to win the GOP nomination, it's appears Romney will have the chance to surmount the same hurdle of religious bigotry Smoot once encountered.

Michael Harold Paulos currently lives in San Antonio, Texas, and has published on the Reed Smoot hearings in the Utah Historical Quarterly, The Journal of Mormon History, Sunstone Magazine, and The Salt Lake Tribune. His book "The Mormon Church on Trial: Transcripts of the Reed Smoot Hearings," was published by Signature Books in 2008. A version of this column was published on the website The artist of the cartoon that accompanies this column is Phil Cannon.

From Around the Web