02/10/2012 10:11 am ET Updated Apr 11, 2012

The Mormon Moment

Current talk in the media sometimes calls this "The Mormon Moment." A hit musical on Broadway, "The Book of Mormon," has won multiple Tony awards. Posters in busses and on billboards nationwide show pictures of a great variety of people declaring, "I am a Mormon."

Mormons are making headlines -- again. Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, and Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah and ambassador to China, have been running for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. Though Jon has left the race, his less identifiable Mormonism was as much a part of his persona as Mitt's more tithe-paying traditional look. But this is far from the first time Mormonism and its beliefs have been in the national news. And one of the prime objections of the public to a Mormon in office is "polygamy."

In 1950 my husband completed his Stanford master's thesis on Mormon U.S. Senator Reed Smoot, elected in Utah in 1903. While I vividly remember typing five carbon copies (!) of the 132 pages, I remember even more the riveting details of an investigation that essentially put the Mormon Church on trial before the nation.

Republican Senator Smoot was seated in the Senate in 1903, but powers in Washington were not about to accept the idea of such "mockery of the Constitution," fearing that Smoot was a polygamist and had sworn allegiance to the Mormon Church and against the United States. Not only was Smoot a Mormon, he was in the hierarchy of the Church -- a member of the Twelve Apostles, next to the three in the presidency, and one of the most influential leaders.

For more than three years a subcommittee of the Senate investigated Senator Smoot for the possibility of his being a polygamist. This in spite of the fact that polygamy had been banned by proclamation of the President of the Mormon Church before Utah became a State in 1896. Smoot was not and never had been a polygamist. But suspicion reigned.

In that investigation, Smoot presented his defense; witnesses were called -- even the president of the Mormon Church -- to verify his non-polygamous standing. According to historian Kathleen Flake:

"The four-year Senate proceeding created a 3,500-page record of testimony by 100 witnesses. 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."

Near the end of the ordeal an opinion was voiced by fellow senator, non-Mormon Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania: "I would rather have seated beside me in this chamber a polygamist who doesn't polyg than a monogamist who doesn't monag," his famous statement goes. The Senate, encouraged by Smoot-supporter President Theodore Roosevelt, voted 42 to 28 to allow Senator Smoot to retain his seat, which he held for 30 years.

How might Senator Penrose's part humorous but telling remark ring in today's rancorous debates? Or feature in the headlines?

Current Mormons do not "polyg." My great-grandparents in the mid-1800s were polygamists, loyal to the "principle" revealed at that time by early prophets Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. But not all Mormons were polygamous even then. Scholars vary in their numbers, but a solid study reports that in the 1870s one-fourth of Mormon households were polygamous in Utah. The Manifesto in 1890 declared polygamy unacceptable by the Church. Though polygamy took a long time to die out, more than four generations of Mormons have lived by the law of the land.

Sometimes the media and many readers confuse Mormonism -- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) -- with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). The FLDS are led by their current prophet Warren Jeffs, who is now serving a life sentence in prison for the sexual assault of an underage follower he took as a bride. Despite shows like "Big Love," polygamy has nothing to do with mainstream Mormonism, now more than 14 million of us. We live in communities, are educated publicly or privately, hold office, worship according to our own conscience, see movies and use the Internet. Anyone in the LDS church who practiced polygamy would be excommunicated.

Maybe this "Mormon Moment" presents a chance for each of us to examine how we vote -- to be sure we exercise the privilege of choosing and speaking and writing with our own voices, loyal to our own concepts of freedom that allow places like The Huffington Post to exist in order to voice our priorities in a free country.

I get to choose a Mitt or anyone else, according to my own convictions, and I relish the chance. Just as I get to go to church on Sunday, or not, and still hold to my own beliefs and hopes for the next generations to do the same.