The whole premise of the discussion is that we now have a Mormon (Mitt Romney) running for the highest political office in the nation. And let’s face it; for most Americans, Mormons are little more than a strange enigma. Everyone knows that Mormons used to practice polygamy and that the church’s headquarters are in Utah. Most people know what Mormon missionaries look like. But that’s about the extent of most Americans’ knowledge of the faith.
Some people know that Utah Mormon culture in the last half of the 19th Century was seen as autocratic. A very few people might know that the Supreme Court once held that the Mormon practice of polygamy was inconsistent with democracy. So the question as to whether Mormonism and democratic politics are compatible is a fair question that ought to be addressed.
Fortunately, the event organizers could hardly have done better than pulling in Richard Bushman for the event. Bushman is a very faithful practicing Mormon. He is recognized both in the church and in the academic community as one of the world’s foremost authorities on all things Mormon. As a historian, Bushman has had no problem delving into and openly discussing events that the church may consider controversial. But Bushman is also very conversant in and does a fine job of discussing current affairs.
The discussion begins with Bushman giving a lengthy monologue about the history of the LDS Church, including its relationships with and attitudes toward politics. He particularly discusses how Mormon thought evolved from highly radical in the 19th Century to highly conservative by the 1920s. After reading this, I tend to agree with Bushman that this provides a good platform for understanding why Mormons approach politics the way they do today.
Then begins a question and answer period where the journalists take turns both making comments and asking questions of Bushman. The question topics are quite broad and the tone of the questions varies from congenial to polemical. Bushman also doesn’t mind asking questions of the journalists.
Throughout the discussion Bushman comes across as knowledgeable, congenial and open. He doesn’t seem to get too stirred up by any question. He doesn’t seem to have problems addressing sticky issues. And he generally seems to be enjoying himself. Bushman does not purposefully evade any question as far as I can tell, but there are a couple of times he takes a roundabout way to answer, but only in order to focus on current Mormon thinking.
Journalist Sally Quinn comes across as rather hostile in her questioning, admittedly basing her understanding of Mormons entirely on Martha Beck’s books Expecting Adam and Leaving the Saints. (Beck’s brother-in-law Boyd Petersen counters many of Beck’s claims in this presentation.) Quinn is supposed to be a highly astute journalist, so I was stunned by her admission of ignorance and lack of preparedness for participating on the panel.
Regarding Beck’s assertions, Quinn said, “I don't know whether every word she wrote was true or not. It sounded pretty true.” That, folks, is not the mark of a good journalist. Before Bushman could answer, another journalist jumped in and derided the veracity of true sounding memoir publications in general and raised specific problems with Beck’s writings. With no action on Bushman’s part, Quinn came across as a fool.
I found Bushman’s discussion of how Mormon politics went from radical in 1890 to quite conservative by 1910 to be quite informative. Bushman explains what happened when polygamy was ended, saying, “It wasn't just polygamy that Mormons gave up; they dismantled the whole theocratic structure.”
Why did the church give up on radicalism? Bushman says, “… because the United States government beat it out of them. They were forced to the point of extinction and then realized it all had to be abandoned to preserve their existence as Mormons. As a result, everything became secular.”
This caused a significant shift in Mormon political thought over a couple of decades. Bushman explains, “Mormons, in reaction to this treatment, turned to laissez faire liberalism, having no confidence in the government. Their history gave them no reason to trust the United States government as an agency of the people.”
And yet Mormons have been taught in their canonized scriptures that the Constitution is a divinely inspired document (see D&C 101:77, 80). It’s just that their experience throughout the 19th Century gave them little confidence that the federal government could be trusted to fulfill the aims of that document. And that sentiment continues to influence Mormon political thought to this day. Mormons follow the counsel of their leaders to be civically active. They are well represented in the armed forces. There are disproportionate number of Mormons serving in Congress. Mormons tend to be very law abiding. But they still harbor a level of skepticism when it comes to the government.
Bushman found the question of whether a Mormon president would be required to bow to the church president’s wishes on political matters almost humorous. Unlike the situation with Catholics, no church leader, Bushman says, “would threaten to excommunicate a Mormon because he took a position contrary to church positions on abortion or gay marriage or anything of that sort.”
Some of the panelists had difficulty wrapping their minds around this assertion. In addressing the concerns raised, Bushman says, “Yeah, it's one of the mysteries of how it works in that Mormons, both individually and as an official church, have always rebuffed attempts to systematize ideas. There is no creed.” Bushman tries to explain that while the church leaders are believed to receive revelation and teach doctrine and practices for the whole church, each member has a right to personal revelation and personal interpretation regarding those directives.
Bushman says, “There is great respect. The leaders are followed; they are honored. People wouldn't try to contradict them, but "binding" isn't a word Mormons use. We talk about the "counsel" of the brethren. This is what we advise you to do, and this has great weight, but it isn't like it straps down your conscience.”
When a discussion about people being ostracized from the church ensued, Bushman doubted that the kinds of examples being discussed actually occur in this day and age. He alluded, rather, to what I have seen occur. People feel some type of separation, perhaps due to a doctrinal doubt or a personal difference with another member, and then those individuals work to separate themselves. Perhaps they view the situation in their own minds as ostracism, but I know from personal experience that church members and leaders constantly try to reach out to these people as much as the people will allow. They will do so for years. Often they are rebuffed.
When a discussion about Mormon temples ensues, Bushman tries to explain how Mormons work to make their temples a very holy and sacred space. He talks about obtaining a recommend to enter the temple, and how Mormons wear white clothes and speak in whispers in the temple. “And then outside the temple you don't talk about it at all.” I think the following statement makes Bushman’s point very well:
“Mormons know you can go online, get every last word of the temple ceremony. It's all there. So it's not like it's hidden from the world. Anybody can get it. But among us, we don't talk about it that way. It means something to us. It means a lot.”
When differences with other Christians are brought up, Bushman minimizes these and discusses how close Mormons are to other Christians on many of the issues commonly used to drive wedges between the groups.
The panel eventually gets into a discussion about Christian and Mormon bashing that seems to have become a socially acceptable practice. It is noted, for example, that Mitt Romney’s father was a candidate for the presidency, but that his religion was seemingly a non-issue, while Mitt is being held to the fire for his religious beliefs. One panelist said that it’s a good thing that we have become more able to discuss religions and religious matters in various venues and from various angles. One panelist opines that all religions have to go under the public microscope at some point, and that now it’s simply the Mormons’ turn.
One panelist says, “I would say that whatever happens with Romney in this election, I think there has been a profound [and positive] change in just one generation in how evangelicals relate to Mormons and vice versa. I think the change has been from both directions …. I think that's just going to continue, regardless of what happens in the Romney campaign.”
There are many other marvelous tidbits scattered throughout the discussion. Occasionally panelists ask questions that seem to be generated by sheer curiosity rather than any kind of agenda. And Bushman’s answers to some of these questions are quite refreshing.
As interesting as this panel discussion regarding Mormons and politics is, I think similar panel discussions targeted at other faiths would be equally enlightening and valuable. While Bushman’s performance was superb, I wonder what the discussion might have been like had it included one or more other well educated LDS authorities (perhaps including women and/or people from different age groups or demographics). But even in its current format, it’s a great discussion.