Thoughts from the Anvil: Mitt, Mormonism, and American Religious Politics

meet_mitt_romney.jpgA couple of weeks ago, I attended a conference at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion on “Mormonism and American Politics.” The big question at that conference was whether or not presidential hopeful Mitt Romney was going to make “The Speech,” in which he would deal with “the whole Mormonism issue.” At the time, I wanted to post some of my thoughts on Romney’s Mormon problem, and since it looks as though Romney has opted for “The Speech,” now seems like a good time to put them up.

I suspect that on Thursday Mitt Romney’s Mormonism will perform the function that Mormonism has been fulfilling in American politics for a century and a half: It will be an anvil on which this mainly Protestant nation hammers out the place of religion in public life.

In 1856, the Republican Party was founded in opposition to the twin relics of barbarism: polygamy and slavery. By 1862, the GOP had enough political power to start putting some legal muscle behind the campaign slogans, passing the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. Four successive waves of legislation, prosecutions, and high-stakes litigation followed, until the church issued the Manifesto in 1890 and Utah joined the Union as a state. In the thirty odd years between the first Republican platform and the Manifesto, Protestant America used the Mormons to articulate the limits of religious toleration.

MormonismCartoon.jpgI find it fascinating that religiously motivated abolitionists were at times in the forefront of the anti-polygamy battles. In part, I suspect that the denunciation of Mormonism served an important function for them, namely as a defense to the frequent charges of religious extremism thrown at them by their critics. “We’re not the fanatics,” they in effect said, “those Mormons are!” Likewise, as Sally Gordon’s excellent book has shown, anti-polygamy allowed Protestant opponents of female suffrage, with their sanctified vision of the home that excluded women from the franchise, to say, in effect, “Hey, our religion is not repressing women. That is something only those nasty Mormons do!” In both instances, Mormonism served an important place in Protestant self-definition, and the intense legal pressure directed at the Mormons was as much about defining the identity of the anti-polygamists as it was about changing the identity of the Mormons, although change it the pressure did.

In the first decade of the 20th century, we saw a great aftershock of this battle. Mormonism once more became the anvil on which the rules of the game for religion in American politics were hammered out. Utah elected Reed Smoot (pictured to the right), a monogamous Mormon apostle, to the U.S. Senate. The result was a political firestorm, stoked in the Protestant churches and then played out in years of hearings before the Senate. The price of Reed Smoot’s admission to the Senate was a set of public pledges from the church hierarchy promising the final suppression of polygamy and the abandonment of lingering utopian ambitions. As Vanderbilt’s Kathleen Flake has compellingly demonstrated, however, Smoot’s election forced Protestant America to articulate the rules under which legitimate political participation was to be allowed, and there were specters other than Mormonism that stalked the Senate Committee on Privileges and Immunities. Rules for “Papists” and “Hebrews” were also being hammered out in those hearings.

On Thursday, I think that Romney’s speech will serve at least in part as an anvil on which one of the more surprising alliances in American politics will be hammered out: the one between conservative Catholics and Protestants. It wasn’t so long ago that the idea of an Evangelical-Catholic alliance would have been anathema to both sides. Indeed, the more conservative the believer the more anathema the alliance would have been. That changed beginning in the 1970s, when conservatives from both traditions decided that the forces of secularism were a greater threat than either Rome or heresy. The alliance, however, is not an entirely easy one. (Witness for example, the furor caused by Francis Beckwith’s conversion from Evangelicalism to Catholicism.) I suspect that not too far below the surface of the Religious Right one will find a deep-seated theological ambivalence: Did the religious conservatives sell-out theologically by clasping hands across what had been the ultimate divide in American religious politics?

benson_ike.jpgPart of this tension has been managed by the promotion of “The Great Tradition,” a somewhat fictitious creation that, like ‘Judeo-Christian culture,” provides a coping mechanism for the cognitive dissonance created by the contradictory pulls of politics and theology. In effect, it allows Protestant and Catholic activists to tell themselves, “I didn’t sell out my beliefs for control of Congress; after all we both believe in Nicea and Chalcedon.” In a world of un-conflicted sectarian competition, I suspect that the Mormon rejection of the creeds didn’t matter all that much. Sure, it meant that Mormon theology was wrong, but everyone else’s theology was wrong too, so there was no special Mormon problem. Likewise, Mormon rejection of the creeds didn’t matter all that much when Ike presided over a culturally self-confident and complacent Protestantism. “Letting Mormons sit at the table,” the Protestants in effect told themselves, “doesn’t say anything about Protestantism because everyone understands that we wield ultimate control.” (Hence, for example, Mormon apostle Ezra Taft Benson — pictured at his swearing in left — could serve in Ike’s cabinet without the sky falling for Evangelicals.) Not so in a world where Protestant hegemony is challenged by the forces of godlessness.

Hence, I suspect that the reason why many within the Religious Right want to deny Romney (or any other Mormon) the Presidency is because Mormonism is an important theological marker that legitimizes the other theological compromises that have made the coalition possible. “Sure, we’ll work with the Papists,” the conservative Evangelical subconscious can say to itself, “but the Mormons are one theological compromise too far. I am not a theological sell-out because while I will accept Mormon votes, I will not accept a Mormon leader.” Soft-bigotry against Mormons facilitates broader theological cooperation.

As a Mormon, I have to say that living on the anvil where the concerns of others get hammered out can be a bit uncomfortable. On the other hand, I take solace in the fact that much of the time it probably really isn’t about Mormonism. Rather, it is about the theological stories that Mormonism allows conservative Protestants and Catholics to tell themselves.

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8 Responses

  1. Nate, this is great stuff. A lot of people have commented on the way in which Mormonism arguably stands as a negative marker that mainstream Christians rely upon to determine what is truly antithetical to their identity, but the way you very plausibly connect it to the conundrums which haunt the recent evangelical-Catholic alliance to support a politically conservative agenda, the same agenda which Romney is now trying to make his own, is very insightful. Insightful, but I’m not sure entirely persuasive; I have a few nits to pick, I think, but I’m going to wait until I hear or read the talk to fully spell them out.

  2. W&M 2L says:

    To me, oman is pulling the whole black person “oh, we are so oppressed” argument when it doesn’t apply. he is trying to make excuses for Romney’s failure in national politics, when, in actuality, Romney is failing because he is a dipshit. He is failing because he has not held a consistent position since his term as MA governor expired. He is failing because he only pours resources into two states for campaigning. And he is failing because, above all, he is a bad candidate. Not because he is mormon.

  3. Kaimi says:

    2L writes:

    “To me, oman is pulling the whole black person “oh, we are so oppressed” argument when it doesn’t apply. he is trying to make excuses for Romney’s failure in national politics, when, in actuality, Romney is failing because he is a dipshit.”

    Great job, 2L! You’re insulting Blacks, Mormons (I think), Romney, and possibly one of your professors, all in one comment. Commendable! However, your comment inexplicably failed to tinclude any insults directed at women. Hopefully by the time you’re a 3L, you’ll be able to work that angle in too.

    If you look, though, Nate’s post really isn’t much about Romney. Whether Romney is a good or a bad candidate, his prominence in the election field is generating certain discussions about the interaction of religion (specifically Mormonism) and politics. Those discussions — not Romney’s viability as a candidate — were the point of Nate’s post.

  4. Having been involved with Catholics and Evangelicals for many years in a variety of contexts, I think that Professor Oman is confusing Evangelicalism with “Protestant America.” Most of contemporary Evangelicalism comes out of the Second Great Awakening, and thus is a child of the same restoration impulses from which Mormonism arose. As Evangelicals have become more aware of the historical debt they owe Catholicism for its theological framework, they have seen in Catholics close cousins with whom they share an actual history and doctrinal patrimony.

    The Protestant America that bristled at Catholic power was largely liberal and mainline. Their objections to Catholicism were cultural. Of course, Evangelicals were anti-Catholic as well, but for somewhat different reasons. They thought Catholicism was theologically mistaken. They would quote the Bible to Catholics. Mainline liberals did not think there were any theological mistakes per se, since theology was not a knowledge tradition that could be mistaken. This is why they would quote Walter Rauschenbausch and George W. Truett rather than the Bible.

    I don’t think anyone can read the Evangelicals and Catholics Together documents and not believe that much thought and reflection has gone in the present alliances between Catholics and Evangelicals. So, I think that Professor Oman’s narrative is not as charitable as it could be.

    I very much enjoyed meeting Professor Oman in person at Princeton several weeks ago. His students are fortunate have such a fine professor.


  5. Nate Oman says:

    Frank: I agree that what I wrote is not as careful as it could be in terms of drawing distinctions between Evangelicals in particular and Protestants in general. My claim however is simply that the current poltical salience of Mormonism among a certain group of Evangelical voters is the latest instance of a tradition of Protestants using Mormonism to hammer out define the limits of politically and publically acceptable religion. I don’t mean to claim that Evangelicals were running the Eisenhower administration. I do think that they played more than a peripheral role in American hostility to Catholicism. To be sure, you are right to point out that it TULIP and biblical inerrantism were hardly the things that caused Northeastern Episcopalian power brokers to turn up their noses at those who went to mass and had surnames ending with a vowel. On the other hand, Evangelicalism has been a potent cultural force in the southeast and the lower great plains for a very, very long time, and it is not as though these were regions of utopian Catholic toleration and acceptance for most of that period.

    I am also not denying that a huge amount of thought has gone into hammering out the legitimacy of the Catholic-Evangelical political alliance. Rather, I take the this lavish intellectual attention as evidence that there was (and to a certain extent still is) considerable theological ambivalence about the alliance. One doesn’t spend hours trying to reconcile something that does’t bother one.

  6. Christian Miller says:

    Professor Oman, is there any evidence to suggest that had Mormonism not been used as an anvil during the polygamy debates in the nineteenth century that Mormonism would have eventually abandoned the practice?

    I would think there is some difference between behavior compelled by religion that intersects with public life, such as polygamy, and high-falutin’ theological disputes. Arguably the latter has very little impact on the the ability of lay individuals to interact in civil society.

    Sadly, that kind of concern about Mormonism does seem to be misplaced today, however.

  7. Nate Oman says:

    Mr. Miller: You ask a very difficult hypothetical question. Certainly, prior to the late 1880s — after literally thousands of criminal trials and incarcerations — there is simply not much evidence that Mormon leaders were going to abandon polygamy. They thought it had been revealed by God, and I think that most of them were willing to go down fighting rather than abandon it. While they were certainly eager to avoid prosecution, they were willing to go to prison when caught rather than renounce “The Principle.” On the other hand, among younger Mormons there was some rather muted opposition to polygamy. Certainly, polygamy creates massive demographic problems in a population with roughly equal numbers of men and women. All which is to say, internal pressures might have ended Mormon polygamy if the Mormons had been left to their own devices, but it would have been very slow. The reality, of course, is that there is really no way of knowing. Even with the massive federal legal crusade, I think the actual abandonement of the practice by the Mormon church took at least 15 years, so that 1890 is really best thought of as the beginning of the end, rather than the end.

    I certainly think that at some point religion intersects with public life and can be a legitimate source of public concern (and public inspiration for that matter). Hammering out when is difficult.

  8. Joeson says:

    The real issue is the actual doctrine of the LDS church. There have been many stories and opinions but what is the doctrine of the church. We don’t know it and don’t teach it. Until now. Darius Gray and Marvin Perkins have put out a DVD that details all of the scriptures on the issues. It is amazing and answers all of the questions without debate by using the scriptures. It’s called Blacks in the Scriptures.