Too often today’s political discourse reduces politics to partisanship, whether one affiliates with this or that political party. It’s a much broader topic, however, encompassing big notions about citizenship in a society, how we as a group of people make decisions, how we navigate our responsibilities to each other, to our government, and to our consciences and deepest religious convictions. When we weave in a particular group of people, such as Mormonism, it becomes even more clear that the political sphere is ever evolving—that even as certain themes maintain some influence in how each period of history unfolded, change concerning what Mormons wanted both for and from government was and is always the norm. Mormonism has a wonderful history of thinking fresh about government, about economic forms such as cooperative economies versus free-market capitalism, in wondering about how heaven is governed and if the way it is governed here on earth is truly the ideal. For any who think today’s super-conservatism or uber-Republicanism is built deep in the fabric of Mormon theology or thought is deeply mistaken—yet even as our history tells tales of great latitude, Mormonism really hasn’t yet articulated a clear sense of what it means to approach the political sphere as a Mormon, to live in community, to live in peace. It’s a much needed project!
This two-part episode features three wonderful Mormon historians and social thinkers telling the kind of broad stories about Mormonism’s political past that are very needed if we are to ever find our way out of thinking primarily in partisan boxes. Ben Park, Matthew Bowman, and Patrick Mason join Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon on a tour through four major periods in LDS history—Joseph Smith’s political thinking as manifested during his life, the exodus and early Utah period with its continued experimentation with theo-democracy, the period of political assimilation leading up to Utah statehood and on through the middle of the twentieth century, the rise of and shift toward conservatism and on to the present day—noting major themes and shifts, as well as what from each period and ways of thinking about the political sphere still find voice in today’s Mormonism. When came the rise of Latter-day Saint views about the U.S. Constitution as an inspired document—and were early attitudes toward it the same as we find now? When did it shift primarily from political expediency to align with American forms of government and values to actual embrace of them? How does Mormonism’s past steeped in radical millennialism still influence it today? Does it? How have views of “Zion” shifted through the tradition’s 180-plus years? How and why have Mormon views of what constitutes moral goods shifted to concentrate mostly on the individual and domestic sphere versus the wider social one? Are there any signs of possible shifts on the horizon?
We invite you to listen and then join in the conversation in the comments section below!
Patrick Mason, “God and the People: Theodemocracy in Nineteenth Century Mormonism,” Journal of Church and State (2011): 1-27
Patrick Mason, “Visions of Zion,” Christian Century, August 2012.
Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (New York: Random House, 2012).
Ben Park, “Why Do Mormons Love the Fourth of July So Much?” Religion and Politics, 4 July 2012.
Ben Park, “Mitt Romney, Mormonism, and the Tensions of an ‘American Religion,” Blogpost at Peculiar People
Ben Park, “Mormon Patriotism and the Cultural Reading of Scripture,” Blogpost at Peculiar People
What a topic! What a panel! I really eat all this stuff up. Thanks to all of you for participating.
Loved this! Thanks for all the work everyone put into this. You did a great job with putting church history in context of U.S. history and making sense of our political history. I love politics. I was impressed with how well inform everyone was on this topic. You did an amazing job at giving an good overview without generalizing and going deeper into important issues.
Thanks for doing this. One comment that really jumped out at me was the idea that the church’s decision to clamp down on over-the-pulpit partisan political talk coincided with the tale end of Benson’s commentary and that may have frozen his thinking in time, giving his world view disproportionate traction today.
Oops, tail 🙂
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Personally, I found one of the best examples of political discourse in American history to be the publication of the Nauvoo Expositor. I am not a Mormon, but found the writing of that paper to be patriotic to the point it really moved me. The writers made points of proclaiming thier fath, loyal to the tenants of the Mormonism, while expressing political dissent with the then leader of the church. It was a beautiful thing, in my opinion.
Those writers, though obviously unprofessional, made strong points about their desire to honor the constitution of the United States, to differentiate themselves from Joseph Smith’s desire to blend church and state, and to worship in a solidly Mormon way with no secrecy attached. I’d encourage any Mormon to read the document for themself, not an interpretation, but the real deal.
I believe that paper and the surrounding incidents have a powerful place in American history, but probably quite a different one than most Mormons do. I believe it’s a beautiful example of the power of freedom of the press. So here and now, what is the range of Mormon political views? Do you all vote for Romney because he’s Mormon? We on the outside fear it’s so, like you donated to the Prop 8 cause because your elders told you to.
In writing this response, I did a little research and was shocked to see the Nauvoo Expositor referred to as written by “apostates.” I come from a tradition that celebrates questioning, that of the Episcopal faith. My understanding of our constitution is that it also welcomes dissent and civil discourse. My daughter knows many more Mormons than I do, and tells me all the time they’re not all the same. Do you all vote the same? and burn printing presses?