The Fallacy of Religious Freedom: On Spencer W. McBride’s “Joseph Smith for President”
By Tamarra KemsleyJune 11, 2021
Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom by Spencer W. McBride
They cited two documents from the church’s early years. One was an 1841 ordinance in Nauvoo, Illinois, promising “equal privileges” to all “religious sects and denominations.” And the other was the founding prophet Joseph Smith stating a willingness to “die in defending the rights” of “a good man of any denomination.”
Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom by Spencer W. McBride evaluates this long discussion of American religious heterodoxy through the lens of Smith’s longshot bid for the White House in 1844.
Insular and devoted to a single charismatic figure, early members of the LDS Church did not, according to their suspicious Protestant neighbors, behave like a real religion and did not warrant the protection due to one. In Missouri, supporters of slavery grew enraged when a Mormon press published an article that smacked of abolitionism. Mobs rallied and attacked Mormon towns and settlements, burning homes and killing many.
Smith and his followers fled over the Mississippi River into Illinois, where they founded a theocratic town called Nauvoo (Hebrew for “beautiful place”) with vast independence in judicial matters. This alarmed nearby citizens, who watched Smith amass great power as he moved through a constellation of civic and military offices, including mayor. Something had to be done.
Anti-Mormon mobs followed the same pattern. First, the aggrieved neighbors would build a public case, often in the press, as to why Latter-day Saints were really a group of fanatics masquerading as a faith. Newspapers as far away as Massachusetts and New York ran lurid stories casting the group as a threat to democracy and therefore in need of violent suppression. Their prophet claimed his revelations were binding on all humanity, and his followers voted as a bloc for whomever Smith supported. Starting in 1842, disillusioned ex-Mormons began publishing stories accusing church leaders of practicing polygamy.
Cementing Smith’s and his followers’ status as political outsiders was critical, as it transmuted any persecution of them into acts of patriotism. “To these Protestants, violence against religious minorities was not bigotry because they did not accept the beliefs of those groups as ‘religion,’” McBride writes. Rather, it was “part and parcel to a democratic society,” an extralegal yet justified means of upholding the established social order.
McBride details stomach-turning violence in Missouri and Illinois. Mobs gang-raped Mormon women, while the men endured whippings and other forms of torture. Some lost their lives. Even those who escaped the worst of the physical violence saw their homes torched, businesses seized, and farms trampled — some more than once. At one point, Smith pinned the estimated loss of property at $2 million.
McBride is far from the first historian to document “mobocracy.” But he makes his approach novel by situating the sufferings of the LDS Church within the larger pattern of religious persecution throughout much of US history, explaining that for “many Americans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, religious freedom was never intended to be universal. Instead, it was largely designed by Protestants for Protestants.”
The federal government did nothing to stop it. The book recounts Joseph Smith’s visit to the White House in 1839, hoping to catch a moment of President Martin Van Buren’s time. Not only had Missouri’s governor failed to intervene on behalf of the harried Mormons, but he had also authorized their “extermination.” Van Buren agreed the situation was a sad one, but one, he said, he had no power to solve. Congress concurred. So did various presidential candidates five years later, when Smith was still petitioning anyone who would listen for help. The doctrine of states’ rights had tied their hands — just as it had on the issue of ending slavery and later would in dismantling segregation through the mid-20th century. Seen in this light, Smith’s failed appeals to the federal government are just more damning evidence that “states’ rights was more of a political strategy than a philosophy of governance” meant to “maintain a carefully constructed — and deeply unjust — economic and social hierarchy.”
Smith’s decision to run for president in 1844 then appears less an act of vain delusion than the desperation shared by many religious minorities. That same year, for instance, Protestant mobs, fearful that Catholics, although a minority, intended to ban the King James Bible from schools, burned down a pair of Catholic churches in Philadelphia. “With a political system seemingly designed to keep them marginalized, sometimes all they could do was throw whatever they could against the metaphorical wall to see what stuck,” McBride suggests. In short: “Thoughts and prayers were not enough for the Mormons. They wanted action.”
Such action was not meant to benefit only their own. By looking to strengthen the federal government’s power to halt mob action, Smith and his supporters sought “a political revolution” that would forbid religious discrimination under the law regardless of a person’s faith.
The call for a radical new view of society was nothing new for Smith. From the beginning, this son of poor New England farmers saw in his calling as prophet a charge to reimagine not just individuals’ relationship with God, but also with each other. As a presidential candidate, he thought equally big. The federal government wouldn’t just have the power to end religious discrimination but also slavery and the entire prison system. “Petition your state legislature to pardon every convict,” his campaign brochure read.
Indeed, McBride perhaps underplays how outside the norm the Mormons were becoming by the 1840s. He gives polygamy, which Smith practiced in earnest, only a glancing look, failing to mention just how many wives Smith had (more than 30) or Smith’s view that the practice would remake all human relationships to better reflect heavenly society. In petitioning the help of the federal government, Smith was calling on presidents, congressmen, and governors to protect him as he built an entirely new society within the borders of the United States.
Rather than dwell on these radical visions, McBride instead emphasizes the shared experience between the Mormons and other religious groups, including Catholics, Shakers, and Jewish Americans, as well as non-religious minorities, such as those in favor of immediate and total emancipation. The reason is clear: the author is not writing for his fellow Latter-day Saints or historians, but for a broader audience meant to draw parallels between 19th-century United States and today. Before there were Muslim bans, there were Mormon bans, and we would do well to speak about them. For in so doing, “we are not merely talking about a list of overtly discriminatory laws or public policies or philosophies of governance. We are also talking about the way Americans use seemingly neutral policies to enact and maintain discrimination against minority groups.”
Throughout Smith’s and later Brigham Young’s tenure, the Latter-day Saints viewed themselves as midwives of a new society as much as a new religion. Indeed, the two were inseparable in the minds of early believers, 60,000 of whom would trek west to lend their hand in building God’s new Zion. Separatism would eventually prove untenable, however. For Utah to become a state, the Church had to officially disavow polygamy, which it did in 1890, shocking the membership who had come to see the practice as critical in distinguishing their faith from other Christian sects. Meanwhile, the church’s growth would eventually force leaders to drop the call for Saints to gather physically. Zion, the teaching became, could be found wherever there was a believing member of the Church.
With such a laudatory history of anti-discrimination, why did Mormons vote so heavily for Donald Trump, not just once but twice? Nowhere does McBride attempt to probe the issue, perhaps in part because the answer lies well outside the period that serves as the book’s focus. The 20th century provides more answers. After the hard pivot from separatism to assimilation, Mormons worked overtime to exchange the stereotype of a bearded, backward fanatic for that of a clean-shaven, modern citizen of the world. No future prophet would have society-remaking visions like Smith. Mormons applied their characteristic industriousness to a new mission: white American middle-class respectability. When Phyllis Schlafly and other members of the Religious Right came calling, they could hardly believe their luck. To be Mormon became synonymous with being Republican.
As in so many communities, Trump’s presidency had a rift-revealing effect for Mormons. Some saw the divisiveness and the family separations at the border as distinctly against their faith, but most hewed to the hyper-American and socially conservative identity the church had cultivated since the 1920s. The mixed attitudes were embodied in the contrasting responses to Trump by Utah’s two senators, both of them Republican and devout LDS.
Mike Lee compared Trump to a hero straight out of the Book of Mormon come to rescue the nation from a tyrannical, secular left. Like the Mormon-hating mainstream Protestants before him, he interprets religious freedom to mean the ongoing dominance of mainstream Christianity, of which he views Mormonism to be a member.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has repeatedly described Trump and Trumpism as a moral and existential threat to the nation, in part for his tendency to scapegoat minorities, including religious minorities. “Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree,” he declared in 2008 while running for office himself. Titled “Faith in America,” the speech sought to normalize Romney’s Mormonism in the face of relentless questioning and bigoted attacks.
The two men’s views reveal a telling lack of clarity on whether, 200 years after its founding, the LDS Church and its followers have truly muscled their way into the mainstream or fully embraced the tolerant views of its founding prophet. In this context, Joseph Smith for President reads as much as a warning as it does a history. Religious bigotry is not merely a function of religious bigots, McBride argues, but the result of “systems of governance” that enable this bigotry — generation after generation.
Smith understood the need to change the power structure from within if the prejudice were ever to be halted. That’s why he ran for president. For Americans to “experience true universal religious freedom,” we, McBride’s readers, must embrace this truth, too.
Tamarra Kemsley writes on the intersection of faith and politics. She can often be found untangling the quirks of her Mormon faith.
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