Book chapter

Religious Traditions in Politics: Latter-day Saints (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics

Abstract

From its inception Mormonism was an overtly political movement that sought to dismantle the barriers between religion and government. The church's founding prophet, Joseph Smith, was both a theological and political leader, serving as mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois, and even running for president of the United States. After Smith's assassination, the Mormons left the United States for the valley of the Great Salt Lake in an attempt to escape the persecution the fledgling religion had faced from its inception. Isolated from the American mainstream, the Mormons established a separatist, quasi-nation in what would become the state of Utah. Church and state were substantially conflated in the Utah Territory. Political conflict with state and federal governments is a common theme running throughout Mormon history through the mid-19th century. In Utah, the fiercest battles were over federal authorities' attempts to eradicate Mormon polygamy. The passage of draconian anti-polygamy laws eventually forced the Mormons to abandon their distinctive marriage system and begin the process of assimilating into the larger society. Mormon assimilation has proceeded in fits and starts, and charges that church and state remain conflated in Utah are still common. The Mormon Church has been involved in several high-profile political battles on "culture war" issues. While the church has generally been neutral in electoral politics since the end of World War II, Mitt Romney's quest for the presidency has thrust some of the esoteric doctrines of Mormonism into the spotlight.