By Mary Campbell – – – – – –
This week, the electoral fate of one of America’s reddest states became much less clear. As Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton‘s op-ed in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News revealed this Wednesday, GOP nominee Donald Trump has alienated one of the Republican Party’s most reliable voting blocs: Utah’s Latter-day Saints (LDS). With former LDS presidential candidate Mitt Romney refusing to endorse Trump, and Sen. Mike Lee, also a Mormon, denouncing the Republican nominee’s intolerance of Muslims, the country’s 45th state may swing Democratic for the first time in more than 50 years.
Appealing to the Latter-day Saints’ collective support for immigration reform and their reverence for a Constitution that they view as divinely inspired, Clinton urged the Deseret News’s largely LDS readership to support her campaign rather than “retreat behind Trump’s notion that there’s only one right way to be an American.” “As Americans,” she wrote, “we hold fast to the belief that everyone has the right to worship however he or she sees fit,” alluding to the decades of religious persecution that 19-century Mormons experienced as a result of their practice of polygamy.
It remains to be seen whether this call resonates with the LDS community, particularly since it conflicts with their actual history. As the Latter-day Saints know, their polygamous period prompted our country to explicitly reject the notion that the First Amendment guarantees every American “the right to worship however he or she sees fit.”
“Let it go to the world that … a man can govern himself because he is inspired by God to a certain course and you may as well abolish all your statute-books and dispense with your law-making power,” Sen. Augustus Garland (Ark.) declared of Mormon polygamy in 1882.
“Can a man excuse his [illegal] practices … because of his religious belief?” the Supreme Court demanded in its seminal 1878 polygamy case, Reynolds v. United States. “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and, in effect, to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could exist only in name under such circumstances.”
Fighting to prevent such anarchy, the country unleashed a torrent of cultural and legal violence against the Mormons. “We cannot [end polygamy] by kid-glove legislation,” Nevada Rep. George William Cassidy railed on the floor of the House in 1882. “It requires harder blows. Somebody must be hurt.” Breaking the Saints to monogamy and the “one right way to be an American” that that arrangement represented, the country forced the Mormons to ransom one of their faith’s most integral elements for both national acceptance and, beyond that, their religion’s very survival.
I don’t write this as a defense of LDS polygamy, much less to challenge Clinton’s understanding of the First Amendment or take her view of Mormon history to task. Instead, I mean to marvel at a situation wherein the Latter-day Saints — a people who for so long appeared to have deliberately forgotten their separatist 19th-century origins as part of a campaign to restyle themselves as model Americans — might now embrace those origins as a way of rejecting Trump.
“There are a few things that people of Utah know,” independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, a native Utahn and Latter-day Saint, proclaimed during his campaign kickoff speech in Salt Lake City this week. “We know … that America is a place where people of all faiths, ethnicities and nationalities are welcome.” Having themselves suffered the religious, ethnic and even racial stereotyping that drives so much of Donald Trump’s campaign, today’s Mormons appear to have little desire to inflict such hard blows on others.
Campbell, a lawyer and art historian, is a faculty member at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image.”