Mormonism and American Politics

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Editor(s): 
Randall Balmer, Jana Riess
Religion, Culture, and Public Life
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Pressa
    , December
     2015.
     264 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780231165990.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Mormonism, say Randall Balmer and Jana Riess, the editors of Mormonism and American Politics, is “inextricably tied to politics” (ix). Balmer and Riess begin with that premise and prove it throughout the volume as contributors investigate the relationship and interactions between Mormonism and politics from Joseph Smith to present day. This collection of papers, apart from three, were first presented at a conference on Mormonism and Politics held at Columbia University in 2012. This work looks at Mormonism from multiple perspectives and vantage points. It examines, for instance, how Mormons have and continue to operate politically as well as how political entities have viewed the Mormons. The collaborators are a fair mix of Mormons and non-Mormons and are described in the introduction as ranking in the “A-list” (xi). The papers are arranged chronologically in three parts: Origins and Tensions, Shifting Alliances, and Into the Twenty-First Century. 

Indeed the “A-list” was truly assembled in this collection of essays, all of which constitute in and of themselves valuable contributions to the study of Mormonism’s interactions with politics. A few highlights include “Ezra Taft Benson and the Conservative Turn of ‘Those Amazing Mormons,’” which outlines the political shift of Mormonism before, during, and after the presidency of Ezra Taft Benson. More than any other in the book, this article attempts to show clearly how Mormonism came from its radical roots to occupy a place of near ultra-conservatism. Another, “Mitt, Mormonism, and the Media,” by acclaimed journalist Peggy Fletcher Stack, examines the media’s portrayal of Mormonism, a religion that until recently the media hardly understood. This essay could be used as an instruction manual for years to come for journalists seeking to write about the Mormon movement. Another valuable contribution is Joanna Brook’s “On the ‘Underground’: What the Mormon ‘Yes on 8’ Campaign Reveals About the Future of Mormons in American Political Life.” This articulate essay examines, with great clarity, the implication of Mormons’ support of Prop 8, a 2008 California ballot measure that would have removed a same sex couple's right to marry and what that may mean for the future of Mormonism and its political life.

While this valuable work represents a wonderful resource for understanding Mormonism and politics it is nevertheless shocking that the so-called Smoot Hearings do not receive any substantive discussion. The Smoot Hearings represent the years long debate in the United States Senate about whether to admit Reed Smoot, already elected, into the Senate. Fearing his sympathies for polygamists would cloud his legislative judgment and fueled by anti-Mormon furor, these hearings, which eventually vindicated Smoot, included the testimonies of high ranking church officials including then president Joseph F. Smith, and represents a clear turning point from Mormonism’s political retrenchment into its assimilation to American society. Its absence from this volume is therefore puzzling.

Nevertheless this work remains a new treasure for Mormon studies. While each essay is varied both in its subject matter and approach, each is united in supporting the work’s overarching claim that Mormonism is tied to politics. As one reads the book it becomes clear: Mormonism interaction with and in politics will continue to interest scholars for years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Kerby is a graduate student in Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Randall Balmer is chair of the religion department and John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College. An award-winning historian, his books include God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush and Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, which was made into an award-winning documentary for PBS.

Jana Riess is the author or coauthor of many books, including Flunking Sainthood, American Pilgrimage, and Mormonism for Dummies. She has taught at Barnard College and Miami University in Ohio and is a senior columnist for Religion News Service.

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