“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” -- Harry Truman

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mormons and the Presidency

June 27, 1844: Joseph Smith is killed while running for President

Audio Podcast: Greg Guma on Mormon History and the Presidency
Mormons, the Presidency and the Bilderberg Way by Ronin Wolfe

Of the major religions – other than Muslim – people in the US are least comfortable with the prospect of a Mormon president, says a new Pew Research Center study. Even evangelical Christians, a core constituency for many a Republican hopeful, tend to see the Church of Jesus of Latter-Day Saints as a secretive, possibly heretical cult. Thus, if Mitt Romney does become the GOP’s nominee in 2012, this could be a tougher obstacle than his association with health care reform or his oft-discussed absence of authenticity.

On the other hand, there are a number of Mormon political heavy-weights, notably US Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, Jon Huntsman – one of Romney’s rivals for the nomination, and five other senators, including both from Utah, Michael S. Lee and Orrin Hatch, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Tom Udall of New Mexico, and Dean Heller, who replaced John Ensign to join Reid in representing Nevada.

Romney’s ties to the Church are among the deepest. A fifth-generation Mormon whose ancestors were involved from the mid-1850s, he is a former lay bishop of Massachusetts' temple. But he isn’t the first Mormon to seek the presidency. That honor goes to founder Joseph Smith, a Vermonter by birth who struck out for the west in revival days.

The enthusiasm of 19th century revival movements was contagious. Part of an evangelical surge known as the Second Great Awakening, many centered on Christian prophecies of impending doom. The prophecies faded but the righteous attitude and enthusiasm gave energy to diverse movements, from abolition to temperance and opposition to Masonic influence.

Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont on December 23, 1805 but moved to New York before founding the Church in 1831. He began by announcing that an angel had given him a book of golden plates inscribed with a religious history of ancient peoples. Once “translated” by Smith their contents became The Book of Mormon.

Believers flocked to the new religion, but hostile neighbors forced Smith and his followers to keep moving, first to Ohio and then Missouri and Illinois. In Missouri the tensions broke into outright war. Hostile Missourians thought the Mormons were planning an insurrection and the governor said they should be "exterminated” or driven out. Smith next led them to Illinois, where they built a town on some Mississippi River swampland. There Smith became the mayor of a town he named Nauvoo and commanded an impressive militia.

He announced for President as candidate of the National Reform Party in early 1844. It was a long shot, since former President Andrew Jackson was engineering the nomination of Tennessee farmer, lawyer and political “dark horse” James Polk. The Whigs were backing Henry Clay, and the big issue was expansion – specifically the takeover of Texas and Oregon.

Smith’s party had emerged from the National Reform Association, a coalition of unionists, locofocos (a radical Democratic faction combining unionists and libertarians) and the Workingman’s Party, united in their concern about depression and “social degradation of the laborer.” What especially attracted Smith, however, was the Party’s policy focus – homesteading rights. National Reformers wanted legislation allowing workers and others to acquire public lands free of charge, state laws exempting farm land from seizure to collect debts, and restrictions on ownership of large swathes by the wealthy. Their slogan was “Vote the Land Free.”

Unfortunately, like many candidates before and since, Smith had some personal baggage. In his case it came in the form of romantic overtures he had made to the wife of a convert, William Law, a Canadian who quit the Church and publicly attacked the Mormon practice of polygamy in a newsletter. “We are earnestly seeking to explode the vicious principles of Joseph Smith, and those who practice the same abominations and whoredoms,” wrote Law. Accompanied by the Nauvoo city marshal, Smith responded by destroying his accuser’s printing press. The governor charged him with inciting a riot and had him jailed.

On June 27, 1844, while Smith was drinking wine with his brother and some friends in a spacious cell in Carthage, Illinois, a mob surrounded the building. The prophet had a gun, a six shot “pepper-box” pistol, but a gang with blackened faces charged into his cell and opened fire, immediately killing his brother and the others. Smith almost escaped out the window. With shots coming at him from behind and below he plummeted two stories to the ground and then died.

Five men were tried for his murder. All were acquitted. But the Mormon church soon recovered when a new prophet emerged – a 43-year-old former housepainter and carpenter from Vermont named Brigham Young.

Thirty-seven years after Smith’s fateful race Chester Arthur succeeded where he had fallen short, becoming the first president from Vermont upon the assassination of President James Garfield. But Arthur was the Episcopalian son of a Baptist minister, and public attitudes had turned less tolerant in the intervening years. In his first Annual Message to Congress on December 6, 1881, Arthur called Mormon polygamy an “odious crime” and a “barbarous system,” urging legislation to stop its spread. By then Mormons were well established in Utah, Idaho, Arizona and other Western Territories. Attacks on polygamy peppered Arthur’s speeches throughout his presidency.

More than a century later, the Pew Research Center has concluded that 25 percent of American would be less likely to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. The responses from white evangelicals are even less encouraging. More than a third reacted negatively to the idea of a Mormon in the White House. Among those, 63 percent said there is no way they will vote for Romney. University of Akron political scientist John Green claims that distrust among Christian evangelicals contributed to his 2008 loss in the Iowa caucuses.

During Romney’s 2008 presidential run he tried to defuse the issue and dispel doubts with a speech, a strategy used with success by John F. Kennedy when he spoke publicly about Catholicism and politics during his presidential run. But Romney's "Faith in America" talk in Texas mentioned his Mormon faith just once, raising questions about whether he was as comfortable with the issue as he suggested.

This time, he moved to preempt attacks by announcing on CNN that he is “not a spokesman” for the Church. Whether it will work remains to be seen.

This article is the third in a series adapted from The Vermont Way, a new study by Greg Guma to be released in 2012.