Why the King Hearings Should Matter to Mormons

Tomorrow, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, will use his authority and the sacred space of the US Capitol Building to put an entire religion on trial when he convenes a hearing on the “Radicalization of American Muslims.” King has a long track record of Islamophobic conduct, and the planned hearings are being decried by religious leaders and scholars as an abuse of government power, a blow to religious freedom, and a government-backed demonization of millions of decent people of faith.

As a Mormon, I find the King hearings particularly objectionable. Because Mormons of all people know what it feels like for an entire religion to be publicly demeaned for the objectionable deeds of its fringe minorities. And because our religion too was once put on trial by Congress.

In 1903, Reed Smoot, a high-ranking LDS Church official, was elected to serve as Senator from the state of Utah. Government leaders, politicians, Protestant churches, and business leaders petitioned Congress that Smoot was unfit to serve because of his affiliation with Mormonism and its outlaw practice of polygamy. What followed was a four-year show political show trial involving more than 100 witnesses that put every dimension of Mormon life under national scrutiny.

But there are some important differences between the Smoot trials and the King hearings as well. Kathleen Flake, professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University and author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle, writes that unlike the King hearings:

The Smoot hearings had some basis in fact: the LDS Church was breaking the law against polygamy. The merits of that law, of course, are questionable, but there’s no question that the Saints were breaking it. Though Smoot himself was not a lawbreaker, he was indeed in the leadership of an institution that was. In contrast, the King hearing seems to be the rankest kind of political hay-making, fear-mongering bigotry that lacks any basis in fact. In its use of political stagecraft, it reminds me of the McCarthy era hounding of godless and Soviet-sympathizing communists.

That’s not to say that the bigots weren’t present in the Smoot hearing circus. Mormonism has always attracted haters, but the Senate Committee, whatever its prejudices, had cause to assume jurisdiction over the matter. It had a purpose rationally related to its public trust. I don’t see that with the King hearing.

There was, however, an effort to strip Mormons of their civil rights based on their beliefs or association with others who believed in plural marriage. The effort was successful in Idaho and was upheld by the Supreme Court in Davis v. Beason. Moreover, LDS missionary efforts were resisted by law and by mobs in various sites of the nation at the turn of the century. European immigration by Mormon converts was enjoined, as well. Arguably, this was over more than the illegality of plural marriage. But LDS lawlessness in this one matter was always available to legitimize widespread legal and popular discrimination. This seems an essential distinction between the two groups; at least insofar as it relates to King’s intention to investigate “radicalization” of Islam.

In the 19th century, Mormonism was frequently characterized in Congress and in public discourse as a threat to the American way of life. Opposition to polygamy was used to legitimize and cover anti-Mormon sentiment. In 1901, at what might have been one of the the high points of American anti-Mormonism, the president of the LDS Church Joseph F. Smith said, “We’ve got a problem. There are good people on this earth who think they’re doing God a service to kill us.”

What Mormons experienced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sounds pitifully familiar to the Islamophobia we witness today, when political operatives exploit popular fear of terrorism to promote base anti-Muslim sentiment, as Sarah Posner shows in this important RD article. If LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith recognized that there were in 1901 “good people on this earth who think they’re doing God a service to kill us,” please consider how Muslims might feel witnessing an elected official from Orange County, California, publicly threaten to marshall US Marines to send American Muslims “to an early meeting in paradise.” As a Mormon who remembers her faith’s marginal history, I find the King hearings and the rank incivility and inhumanity they legitimize to be an ugly and shameful affair.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.