Friday, June 08, 2007

A Discussion About Mormons and American Politics

Jeremy Manning linked to a Pew Foundation transcript of a panel discussion titled Mormonism and Democratic Politics: Are They Compatible? The panel features eminent Mormon scholar Richard Bushman and a host of journalists from across the spectrum. If you are interested in going to the transcript link, you need to be aware that it is a very lengthy discussion. It’s not a quick read, but (in my estimation) it is worth reading.

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.


Charles D said...

Thanks for posting this. I find Bushman's insights very interesting and I think we can draw something of a parallel between the current discussion of the implications of a Mormon being President with those of 1960 regarding a Roman Catholic candidate.

While I don't subscribe to either (or any) religion, I simply do not believe we should judge candidates on the basis of their religion, or lack of religion.

y-intercept said...

Unfortunately, Romney's campaign is not the same as JFK.

The real question is not Mitt Romney's personal faith. The real question is the extent to which the LDS Church works as a political machine.

The founder of the LDS Church had unbridled political ambitions and had morphed the religion into a political machine which is very active in deciding who gets elected and what they do in office.

Joseph Smith, himself, had ambitions toward the presidency. For that matter, he gave himself the title President so that people would be accustomed to calling him Mr. President.

Since gaining the presidency was a major ambition of President Joseph Smith, gaining the presidency will be considered a major milestone in the rise of Mormonism as a political power.

I've had run ins with the Mormon hierarchy. This group has had its eye on positioning a person in the white house for a long time.

There was actually a good amount of work going into position Mike Leavitt for a presidential run.

Romney's campaign is different from JFK. The papacy was not especially interested in JFK, and Catholics were pretty much divided on party lines.

The state of Catholicism in the 1960s is different from the state or Mormonism today.

If the papacy were interested in gaining the presidency, then JFK's affiliation with the Catholic Church would have been perceived differently.

Sadly, since the BoM was written about American Democracy, the beliefs written in the book are relevant to the campaign.

The central plot of the BoM is that there was a great Nephite Kingdom on the American Continent some centuries ago. One day King Benjamin granted his people a democracy.

An evil political machine (much like the Masons) won the election. There was a big war. God smited the Nephites, and turned them into red, savage, loathsome creatures.

The fact that the Book of Mormon is about political machines and the failure of democracy in America makes it relevant.

Mormons really can't say that their believes aren't important in an election because their religious texts say that they are. The Book of Mormon itself screams that these are important issues.

The central philosophy of the Book of Mormon is quite scary. The idea is that that there is a dichotomy between a group of people called "Saints" who are righteous and others called "gentiles" who are evil. The Saints would gather in the latter days as history repeats itself and American Democracy fails.

The beliefs center around a fantasy about the failure of democracy in America and the rise of a new Kingdom of God.

Historically Mormons have acted on these beliefs.

President Brigham Young, led his people out of the United States to establish the Empire of Deseret. His ambitions were twarted by the invasion of the US Army.

Even after the U.S. Invasion of Deseret, the LDS Church continued as a political machine that mixed religion and politics.

This historic mixing of politics and religion means that it is an issue that must be faced by future candidates.

Since gaining the presidency was such an important issue to President Joseph Smith, it is an issue for Mormons seeking the same office.

The fact that the LDS Church continues to operate as a political machine is also a relevant issue.

I agree with DL that the religion or lack of religion of a candidate should not be an issue. Unfortunately, this ideal stops when the religion makes itself an issue.

When a religion operates as a political machine, or when it holds positions on political issues, the religion makes itself a political issue.

The Senate Site said...

This is really interesting. Thanks for posting the links and analysis. I'm going to read that transcript when I get bored in church tomorrow.


The Senate Site said...

P.S. I meant that last sentence to be funny. Apt. Ironic. Satirical. Whatever.

Keep up the good blog work.

Keryn said...


In regards to your comment about JFK and Catholics being split on party lines, have you spoken to many Mormon Democrats? I haven't heard of any who are planning on voting for Mitt Romney.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Kevin, your claims have some elements of fact, but many of your contentions are ... well, a bit skewed. If you have read the Book of Mormon, it is apparent that it was some time ago. You have your characters, groups, and sequences of events confused.

If you will read through the Pew transcript, you will find that the panel specifically addresses Joseph Smith's candidacy for the presidency and the autocratic nature of the church under Brigham Young. However, they also discuss the demise of the autocractic system and the evolution of the church to a less political organization. You may disagree with Bushman's assertions, but it should be valuable to read and consider them.

I disagree with you that Joseph Smith had himself delcared president of the church so that people would become used to calling him President. His position as president of the church started many years before any thought of running for the U.S. Presidency entered his mind. And he only ran as a protest candidate because after writing to all of the various candidates, the Mormons could find none that they felt would offer them the protections suggested in the Constitution. Perhaps their expectations were unrealistic, but Smith's candidacy was merely meant to give the Mormons a candidate they could vote for in good conscience. And yes, they voted as a bloc, which infurated the political machines of the day.

Bushman says that Smith may have had some fleeting hope that by some strange twist of fate he could win the presidency, but he says that such hope could have endured only briefly. Smith was a protest candidate, and nothing more.

Bushman would agree with you that the parallels drawn between Romney and JFK are not generally accurate, but Bushman means this in an entirely different way than you do.

I'm not sure what you mean when you say that you have run afoul of the Mormon heirarchy. You allude to some shadowy grand master plan hatched in the chambers of church leaders. Having had personal involvement with church leadership, I frankly find this nothing short of laughable. It just simply isn't like that. However, there are influential people that are members of the LDS Church (and have even held high leadership positions) that act on their own and band together with other influential LDS members to push the political agenda of their choice. Some of these people are working hard on Romney's campaign. This is nothing different than what happens in many other kinds of associations of various stripes across the nation.

I encourage you to read the entire Pew transcript. I think that even if you disagree with Bushman's contentions, you will find it enlightening.

Frank Staheli said...

Bushman and others do a great job of letting people see that Mormons aren't as weird as they had imagined.

Every chance I get when I'm outside of Utah, I try to drum up discussions about religion so that people can find out what Mormonism is really about. I find out that people (that I associate with anyway) love to talk about their religion, and they are glad that I am willing to talk about mine.

y-intercept said...

Frank, I am not sure how an article showing Mormons as a group that thrashes from extreme to extreme puts Mormonism in a good light.

I agree. Bushman's presentation at the Pew Foundation is an interesting read in that it discusses the radical roots of Mormonism. This is a part of history that currently gets whitewashed.

ReachUpward was right to note that my terse reply was a bit one sided. That was in part due to Bushman providing a very one-sided view himself. Bushman wants to portray the radical past as rosy. I think the radical years of Mormonism were quite oppressive. You had wagon trains of gentiles masaquered. Journals talk of people on the brink of starvation and short miserable lives.

Bushman's prepared presentation has as many inconsistencies as my quickly typed rant.

For example, Bushman states that the Mormons were not involved in politics in the 19th century. Earlier in his presentation, he talked of a presidential run. He mentioned the plan Smith had for setting up cities. The second President of the LDS Church set up a country, for Moroni's sake! That is direct involvement in politics.

I disagree entirely with the view Bushman wants to portray of the idyllic radical past.

BTW, in my post, I did not say there was a master plan nor did I say there was a conspiracy. I've seen powerful Mormons do mean spirited things to people. I don't attribute this to a conspiracy. I do see it as a result of a way of thinking. When you focus as much power into the hands of a few people as Mormonism does, you get bad results. I dislike the trend toward mega churches and trend to mega-businesses for the same reason. My distaste is for any organization that focuses a great deal of political power into a few hands.

Reach, I do know that there are inconsistencies in my thoughts. You might find some in your own thoughts.

For example, in your rebuttal you made the claim that few Democratic Mormons will cross over to vote for Romney. This contradicts Bushman who claims that many Mormon Democrats are Democrat in name only. Such people tend to jump political fences when a Mormon is running on the opposition side of the ballot. I think many Mormon Republicans are Republican in name only as well.

A while back someone showed me a pile of election statistics which showed a trend of Mormons jumping political fences to vote for one of their own. When a gentile Republican runs against a Mormon Democrat, the Mormon Democrat is likely to win.

A good example is the 1986 election of Democrat Harry Reid in Nevada. BTW, did you know that Harry Reid was Mormon? Anyway, his 1986 victory was a surprise in a state Republicans thought they had a lock on.

I suspect that, if the Democratic Party nominated a Mormon for its presidential campaign, the Democrats would capture the state of Utah. The state might even mysteriously transform from the Most Republican State in the Union to the most Democratic State.

Quite frankly, I don't see the Republican ideals as central to Mormonism. They were useful when Mormonism was under attact from an even more radical left. I could see Utah easily swinging back from its Republican present to a radical future.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Kevin, I think you attributed Keryn's statement about Democrats voting for Romney to me. Bushman agrees with you that Utah could easily swing Democratic again, as it did during the FDR years. Mormons have a track record of voting as a bloc for whichever candidate seems to be most likely to help them achieve their goals. This caused them no end of problems with political parties all the way up until the late 1890s.

I tend to agree that many Mormons seek political outcomes that support their religious views more strongly than they support a particular political ideology or pary. Thus, they are Mormons first and Republicans or Democrats (or Constitution Party or whatever) second. This can lead to political behavior that can be at variance with party platforms. This level of party loyalty drives pundits and party-liners nuts. (Heck, it drives me nuts to watch the Utah Legislature.) But Mormons are hardly the only ones to put other interests before party loyalty.

And yes, I am painfully aware that Senator Reid is Mormon. I know little about his worship habits. I might enjoy worshipping with him. But if he ran in an election where I voted, I would be hard pressed to vote for him unless his opponent was really noxious. I'm not saying that most Mormons ignore religion when voting, but I'm not going to put religious affiliation ahead of political ideology.