The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle

The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle

The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle

The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle

Synopsis

Between 1901 and 1907, a broad coalition of Protestant churches sought to expel newly elected Reed Smoot from the Senate, arguing that as an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Smoot was a lawbreaker and therefore unfit to be a lawmaker. The resulting Senate investigative hearing featured testimony on every peculiarity of Mormonism, especially its polygamous family structure. The Smoot hearing ultimately mediated a compromise between Progressive Era Protestantism and Mormonism and resolved the nation's long-standing "Mormon Problem." On a broader scale, Kathleen Flake shows how this landmark hearing provided the occasion for the country--through its elected representatives, the daily press, citizen petitions, and social reform activism--to reconsider the scope of religious free exercise in the new century.
Flake contends that the Smoot hearing was the forge in which the Latter-day Saints, the Protestants, and the Senate hammered out a model for church-state relations, shaping for a new generation of non-Protestant and non-Christian Americans what it meant to be free and religious. In addition, she discusses the Latter-day Saints' use of narrative and collective memory to retain their religious identity even as they changed to meet the nation's demands.

Excerpt

Mormonism must first show that it satisfies
the American idea of a church, and a system of
religious faith, before it can demand of the nation
the protection due to religion
.

—Rev. A. S. Bailey, Christian Progress in Utah
(1888)

On 20 January 1903, Utah’s predominantly Mormon legislature elected Reed Smoot to the U.S. Senate. A longtime leader in the local Republican Party, Smoot had hoped to run in 1900 but withdrew from the race on the advice of the presidents of his nation and church, leaving victory to wealthy miner and Catholic Thomas Kearns. By tacit agreement, Utah’s seats in Congress were shared equally by Mormon and nonMormon citizens, and it was now the Mormons’ turn. Smoot convinced his church president to support his candidacy, though some of Smoot’s brethren were wary of the unwanted attention his election would invite to Utah’s already too-scrutinized politics. Smoot was, after all, not merely a prominent Republican; he was a very prominent Mormon, even an “apostle,” one of only fifteen men with plenary authority over the L.D.S. Church and in direct succession to its presidency. The prospect of a Mormon hierarch in the Senate was troubling to the new Republican administration, too. Senator Kearns carried the message home for the president. “‘This afternoon,’ he told the local press, ‘President Roosevelt requested me to state … that he desired to be placed on record as kindly but firmly . . .

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