It always amuses me when Americans are told that the political climate today is "poisonously partisan" or "divided" and that this is "the worst partisanship Washington has ever seen." While pundits in the mainstream media love to whip this non-story into a frenzy every election year, it only goes to prove their utter ignorance of American history.
Take just one example: the church and state debate. Much ink was spilled over Mitt Romney's speech last week about his Mormon faith. Very little attention was paid to America's dark history of anti-Mormonism. Americans, as a whole, are not taught these things in their basic history classes in school, because we naturally shy away from the uglier episodes in our country's past.
But the history remains, for anyone willing to take a look. Mormons have the unusual distinction of being the only religious group in United States history to be singled out in one state for extermination. Well, OK, it was in the midst of the "Mormon War" and the Mormons were not entirely blameless themselves in the run-up to the incident, but still... extermination?
On October 27, 1838, the Governor of Missouri issued the following:
"... I have received by Amos Rees, Esq. and Wiley E. Williams Esq., one of my aids [sic], information of the most appalling character, which changes the whole face of things, and places the Mormons in the attitude of an open and avowed defiance of the laws, and of having made open war upon the people of this state. Your orders are, therefore, to hasten your operations and endeavor to reach Richmond, in Ray County, with all possible speed. The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state, if necessary, for the public good. Their outrages are beyond all description."
Jump forward to the early 1900s, and we find the story of Reed Smoot. Smoot is a name vaguely remembered from history class attached to another, in "Smoot-Hawley." Bonus points if you remembered this was about tariffs, and a gold star if you remembered it had something to do with the Great Depression.
But that's not his story, that's what he did later on. Smoot's story is one of the worst examples of religious bigotry in American history, which is why I wonder why nobody talked about it last week. It seems relevant to me.
Reed Smoot got himself elected United States Senator from Utah in 1903. He was elected as a Republican, with a vote of 46-16 in the state's legislature (this was before direct election of senators). Utah had just recently become a state, in 1896, and (more importantly) the U.S. House of Representatives had previously refused to seat two members from Utah. The first was a non-voting member while Utah was still a territory and not a state; and the second, Brigham Roberts, was refused entry to the House in 1900. Both were refused entry for being polygamists (which, admittedly, they were). Roberts' case lasted fifteen months (he was elected in 1898), during which time he tried to argue for his right as a polygamist to enter Congress. The House turned him down.
Enter Reed Smoot, three years later, as a U.S. Senator. When he got to Washington, the same charges were thrown at him. Unlike Roberts, though, Smoot was sworn in as a Senator while the Senate investigated whether he should be allowed to serve. And unlike Roberts, Smoot was not actually a polygamist. Which made the charge of polygamy pretty hard to justify.
But while Smoot wasn't a serial marriage type of guy, he was pretty high up in the church hierarchy of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS). So the entire LDS church was put under the public microscope of a Senate investigation. Two full years were spent examining the Mormons, and the head of the church was called before the committee to be grilled on every aspect of the Mormonism, down to secret church rituals and dogma. The media of the day went along for the ride, with scandalous charges printed along with demonizing political cartoons. The hearings were packed, with lines outside for spectators to view.
From historian Kathleen Flake:
The four-year Senate proceeding created a 3,500-page record of testimony by 100 witnesses on every peculiarity of Mormonism, especially its polygamous family structure, ritual worship practices, "secret oaths," open canon, economic communalism, and theocratic politics. The public participated actively in the proceedings. In the Capitol, spectators lined the halls, waiting for limited seats in the committee room, and filled the galleries to hear floor debates. For those who could not see for themselves, journalists and cartoonists depicted each day's admission and outrage. At the height of the hearing, some senators were receiving a thousand letters a day from angry constituents. What remains of these public petitions fills 11 feet of shelf space, the largest such collection in the National Archives.
After all this media circus, the Senate committee voted to expel Smoot. It moved to the Senate floor. From the Senate"s website:
After an investigation spanning two years, the Committee on Privileges and Elections reported that Smoot was not entitled to his seat because he was a leader in a religion that advocated polygamy and a union of church and state, contrary to the U.S. Constitution. By a vote of 27 to 43, however, the Senate failed to expel him, finding that he satisfied the constitutional requirements for serving as a senator.
The vote was a Republican victory. From the LDS church's official website history:
On 20 February 1907 the Republican Party defeated the proposal that Reed Smoot be removed from his seat. The victory was won in part because Republican leaders, including President Theodore Roosevelt, concluded that if Smoot remained in the Senate he would be a significant influence in keeping Utah a Republican state. With this victory finally behind him, Senator Smoot spent the next twenty-six years in the nation's capital as one of its most influential figures.
Utah remains a heavily Republican state to this day, it should be noted.
Now, there's a tendency of Americans to brush aside our own history with the thought: "but that was long ago, we'd never do that today." But, really, would we not? There was a minor outcry just recently, remember, about the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, and his being "sworn in" on a copy of the Koran. The same vein of bigotry and viciousness was opened briefly for America to see, and although it did not (thankfully) result in hearings in the House as to whether he could be seated or not, there was indeed a cry for just that.
This is why Mitt Romney needs to be asked not about Mormonism, but about other (and newer) religions than his own. Would Mitt have a problem with calling Scientology a religion? Would he support the IRS giving tax-free official "religion" status to even smaller sects? Should the United States Army have Wiccan chaplains? Were the Rajneeshees a "religion"? Was Jim Jones' Peoples Temple a church? What about the only church in America whose membership is limited by your ancestry -- the Native American Church? Or how about the Peyote Way Church, who feels that peyote usage be thrown open to all? Do the Rastafarians have the right to use marijuana as a sacrament legally? What about the Pastafarians who worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Or the Church of the SubGenius™? Are they "churches" as far as the federal government is concerned? And -- more importantly -- why or why not?
Many people feel that Romney's church has some bizarre practices. But my point is, many people have that thought about a lot of other religions as well. Mormonism had its battle with the law over the polygamy issue, but that was 100 years ago (an interesting footnote is that the LDS church changed a few of its own rules, and excommunicated some high-ranking polygamists in the wake of the Smoot hearings). There are other legal battles being fought in America today on the fringes of the debate over what, exactly, constitutes a "religion."
My favorite quote on the matter comes from the incomparable Robert A. Heinlein: "One man's religion is another man's belly laugh."
For instance, most Americans could not accept the "religion" of cannibalism. Say someone decides he wants to start a "church" and writes in his will that anyone who wishes can eat his body after he dies. This would be almost universally condemned, and my educated guess is that it would not be allowed to happen legally in the United States.
But what if you were required to say the words "this do in remembrance of me" when eating the body, or drinking the blood? Would that make it any different? When Christianity first got started -- when it was essentially a "cult" and not an "official religion" in the Roman Empire -- this was exactly the charge leveled against it. That it was a cult made up of cannibals.
It's only from the outside looking in that "religion" is funny. Members of that religion consider their own rites normal and proper. We'd all do well to remember that, presidential candidates included.
[Full disclosure -- I am not a Mormon, and I don't even think I know any (I don't ask people's religion as a general rule). But I remain interested in the church and state divide, and in particular what is and what is not legally considered a religion by the IRS and the federal government.]
[Humorous Note: Researching Reed Smoot will inevitably sidetrack you to the hilarious story of Oliver R. Smoot, M.I.T. class of 1962, and the bridge between Boston and Cambridge which is measured in "smoots." Typing "smoot" into Wikipedia, for instance, brings you to this story first. What I found funniest about the story was not Oliver's later profession, but the fact that the government just eventually gave up and started measuring the bridge in smoots themselves. "There's an accident on the bridge at the 85 smoot mark...." Anyway, you never know where research will lead sometimes.]
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com