From its inception Mormonism was an overtly political movement that sought to dismantle the barriers between religion and government. The church’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith, was both a theological and political leader, serving as mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois, and even running for president of the United States. After Smith’s assassination, the Mormons left the United States for the valley of the Great Salt Lake in an attempt to escape the persecution the fledgling religion had faced from its inception. Isolated from the American mainstream, the Mormons established a separatist, quasi-nation in what would become the state of Utah. Church and state were substantially conflated in the Utah Territory. Political conflict with state and federal governments is a common theme running throughout Mormon history through the mid-19th century. In Utah, the fiercest battles were over federal authorities’ attempts to eradicate Mormon polygamy. The passage of draconian anti-polygamy laws eventually forced the Mormons to abandon their distinctive marriage system and begin the process of assimilating into the larger society. Mormon assimilation has proceeded in fits and starts, and charges that church and state remain conflated in Utah are still common. The Mormon Church has been involved in several high-profile political battles on “culture war” issues. While the church has generally been neutral in electoral politics since the end of World War II, Mitt Romney’s quest for the presidency has thrust some of the esoteric doctrines of Mormonism into the spotlight.
Rick Phillips and Ryan Cragun
Matthew R. Miles and Jason M. Adkins
In 2012, the Republican Party selected a Mormon, Mitt Romney, as their nominee for U.S. president. After decades of persecution and suspicion, many felt like the LDS Church was finally being accepted as a mainstream religion and an equal player on the national political stage. From a different perspective, the “acceptance” of the LDS Church by the U.S. government and the Republican Party has come at a tremendous cost. Unlike those who joined other religious denominations in America, 19th century converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave everything they had to the church. The 19th-century LDS Church controlled not just the political, but the economic, social, and religious aspects of its members’ lives. The LDS Church has traded immense power over a few dedicated members for a weaker political voice in the lives of millions more members. From this perspective, the LDS Church has never been more politically weak than they were in the 2012 presidential election. Previous LDS Church presidents endorsed non-Mormon candidates Cleveland, Taft, and Nixon more enthusiastically than President Monson endorsed Mitt Romney—one of his own. In the 20th century, the power of the LDS Church over the lives of its members has waned considerably, significantly hindering the institutional church’s ability to politically mobilize its congregants. Even in Utah, only the most ardent LDS Church members are swayed by the political dictates of LDS Church leaders.