Mitt Romney and the Ghost of Anti-Mormonism

If there is one book every politics or religion reporter in America should read right now to get ready for the 2012 general election, it is The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle by Kathleen Flake.

Flake is associate professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University and may be the nation’s finest scholar of Mormons in American political life. Her book scrutinizes a multi-year Congressional hearing and national show trial occasioned by the 1903 election of an LDS Senator from Utah named Reed Smoot—a trial that interrogated whether observant Mormons could be fit for public office.

I spoke with Flake about the legacy of the Smoot hearings and their impact on the 2012 race.


Joanna Brooks: In the late nineteenth century, Americans believed the nation had a “Mormon problem.” What did this problem look like from a mainstream point of view?

Kathleen Flake: The Mormon Problem was the name for a national anxiety about a constellation of power that appeared to be immovable by public opinion. As historian David Brion Davis has argued, once America had overthrown the authority of any particular church and rested the state of the union on “we the people” not divinely anointed kings, the highest source of authority was public opinion.

The Enlightenment wagered that a free press and rational, open debate would lead to better decision-making, and people would exercise their franchise accordingly. But Mormonism seemed like a concentration of authority in a group of people impervious to the majority opinion. And not only were they impervious, but they appeared to follow one man who claimed to have divine revelation.

This tapped into a tremendous American anxiety: since the time of the Puritans and Anne Hutchinson, the great anxiety was over people who put themselves above the law because God told them what the law was.

Mormons confronted several shibboleths of antebellum American culture: they conflated their church and their state, they rejected companionate romantic marriage, and they were successfully resisting a market economy. Those three things were foundational to American ways of organizing society and understanding what it meant to be a free people.

Mormons also occupied the Rocky Mountain corridor that severed the east from west at the time when America was trying to establish a territorial coherence at any costs. The nation was carving out large pieces of western territory and calling them states; each of those states got representatives in the US Congress, so power was shifting west. Because of their paranoia, people in the east overestimated the electoral power of Mormonism in the intermountain west. They worried about Mormons forming a voting bloc—a treasonous, licentious, and communist voting bloc.

And theocratic? Mainstream American society must have worried about Mormon theocracy as well.

People use that word theocracy too freely. Mormons then would have said that their government was an expression of popular will. They believed in the franchise, and they exercised it. But they wanted Brigham Young to be the territorial governor. When federal agents deposed the territorial government, it looked to Mormons like tyranny. They would have said, “You are violating the Constitution, and we are the true Americans. You are oppressing the will of democratic voters and making unconstitutional laws barring the free exercise of religion. What you call legitimate marriage (complete with adultery and divorce) is a sham—it’s serial polygamy.”

Mormons believed the U.S. was acting illegally and immorally, just as the U.S. believed Mormons were doing. And they find themselves in the late nineteenth century at an impasse. It’s the very thing the U.S. is afraid of: that Mormons have enough social, cultural, and economic power to resist public opinion and the force of law.

Imagine how frustrated the federal government must have been after sending the army against Utah territory, criminalizing polygamy, and disincorporating the LDS Church. There was nothing they could do except wage ethnic cleansing against people who were not markedly ethnic.

But the impasse finally broke. How?

What breaks an impasse is when each party has something to gain by changing its position. Since Jefferson, it has been American commonplace that deeply religious people will go to the death before they abandon something core to their religion. Jefferson knew that. We all know this. In my book, I analogize the resolution of the impasse to divorce: some couples will burn the house down before they sell it and split the proceeds. But in this case, neither one was willing to burn the house down. They were willing to negotiate. The Smoot hearings were the occasion to negotiate how Mormons would enter American society.

I think the Smoot hearings are the great silent backdrop to this 2012 election. Most people are completely unaware of them. Fill us in.

In 1903, the state of Utah elected Reed Smoot to the US Senate. He was in addition to being a very stalwart Republican and businessman also an apostle [a very high-ranking leader] for the LDS Church.

The ministerial association in Utah objected to his election because they said he represented the LDS Church, which they maintained to be a lawbreaking institution for its continuing sanctioning of polygamous marriage. They argued he could not serve in the Senate and filed a petition against his seating.

The Senate convened a hearing on the matter that lasted on and off for four years and created a congressional record of 3500 pages. The petitions against Smoot fill eleven feet of shelf space in the national archives.

The Smoot hearings were equivalent to the Watergate hearings in our own day—they were covered extensively in the daily press and elicited a tremendous amount of public anxiety.

I sense anxiety from LDS people that Romney’s campaign will put Mormonism on trial once again as it was during the Smoot hearings. Oaths Smoot made during Mormon temple ceremonies closed to the public were a special focus of the hearings, and I think LDS people today are very sensitive that closed Mormon temple ceremonies will once again be the target of unwanted attention.

Yes. And I also see continuities between the Smoot hearing and the techniques used in the primaries in attempts to discredit Romney, as well as the style of his response. Ministerial associations objecting to Mormon candidates in 2012 isn’t as effective as it was in 2008, let alone in 1904. What you see instead are other common pressure tactics: arm-twisting of political leaders by religiously-affiliated constituents, and the use of ridicule as a means of galvanizing public opinion.

Ridicule of Mormon underwear, temple practices, and gullibility—these are standard tropes we have seen since the late nineteenth century.

And by way of response, Romney is very reserved in public discussion of his religion, as was Smoot. Romney is implementing Smoot’s tactic: “keep cool, say little.” He engages by not engaging.

I can only think that Mormons are experienced enough in this that they know you cannot rebut a joke. The effectiveness of ridicule is that there is no logical response. After two hundred years, Mormons know this—they tend to say little.

Pundits insist that at some point Romney will have to make a speech about his religion. I’m wondering, what on earth he is supposed to say?

He’ll be damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. But no speech is really going to work. Look at Barack Obama’s 2008 speech on race. Some people walked away thinking he was a racist. I don’t know how—I thought it was an extraordinary tour de force, a brilliant speech.

Moreover, I don’t know that temperamentally, individually, it is in Romney’s register to negotiate that kind of rhetorical occasion. He’s highly pragmatic. He’s end-result focused. Is it really pragmatic to wade into two hundred years of accumulated misunderstanding about Mormons, with very little preparation of the national audience, and expect to accomplish much?

If I tried to give that speech, I would have to muster for an inadequately understanding public every bit of knowledge I have about traditional and Mormon Christianity, and I teach in a divinity school.

We’ve talked about similarities between the situations facing Smoot and Romney. What about the differences?

I think today’s anxiety about Mormonism can’t be compared to that of the past.

The anti-Mormonism that was nearly universal during Smoot’s era is now a tradition maintained by a very small slice of the American population. The Republican primaries gave that small slice a megaphone: the artificial loudness of their voice makes people overestimate their number.

That said, it will be interesting to see what happens now in the general election when you may begin to hear from another voice that is anxious not so much about Mormonism per se but about any candidate that is too religious. And if Mormonism is anything in the American mind, it is a group of people who take their religion way too seriously.