- The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle
Disputes about the separation of church and state often require leaders to revisit timeless questions of American democracy. One such dispute came to the forefront at the end of the nineteenth century and involved members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons. Because of their [End Page 501] pointedly non-Protestant religious beliefs and practices, namely polygamy and explicit proselytizing, this group had experienced almost a century of persecution ranging from violent military attacks to imprisonment and cultural rejection. Their marginalized status in the United States and around the world made Mormon apostle Reed Smoot's appointment to serve as a senator for the state of Utah especially controversial. In The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle, Kathleen Flake, assistant professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, explores the nexus of rhetoric, politics, and ethics that unfolded when Smoot and the church he came to represent reached Washington. Flake contextualizes and analyzes the 3,500 pages of testimony from four years of Senate hearings debating whether Smoot's leadership in the Mormon Church was antithetical to the responsibilities of a U.S. senator. Her work effectively illuminates the role these hearings played in solving what many referred to as the "Mormon Problem."
Flake frames her book by asking two overarching questions: "How do religious communities change over time and retain a sense of sameness with their originating vision?" and "What are the political terms by which diverse religions are brought within America's constitutional order?" (1). In chapter 1, she introduces the Smoot hearings and their role in the evolution of the Mormon Church. Flake mobilizes a detailed and complex history into a coherent narrative covering the founding of the Mormon Church in 1820 through the Civil War and into the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. Beyond the hearing testimony itself, her narrative draws from editorials, newspaper articles, letters by Smoot's secretary Carl A. Badger written to his wife, Badger's court notes, and religious documents. Throughout the book she includes almost 30 relevant political cartoons, photographs, and maps that further illuminate the key players in the hearings and their public reputations.
Several of the topics that Flake explores will be of special interest to scholars of rhetoric and public affairs. In chapters 1–4, she examines the arguments those opposing Smoot's election to the Senate used against him and the defensive stance that Smoot and other Mormon Church leaders presented in response. Flake discusses and critiques the complaints of the anti-Mormon Protestants during the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. Many of these arguments identify the Mormon practice of polygamy as immoral and anti-American (24). An alliance of Protestant church members, social reformers, and women's groups argued that because Mormon leaders ignored the law and often performed and engaged in plural marriages themselves, they were explicitly undermining national values. They argued that any representative of the Mormon Church who put his religion before his country in condoning such practices was not fit to be a senator. [End Page 502]
In response, Mormon leaders tried to frame polygamy as a dying practice and issued an anti-polygamy manifesto in 1890 (30). Rather than argue the value of polygamy itself, church leaders knew that they had to deny the widespread nature of polygamy and other explicitly unconventional practices in order to gain representation in the Senate and acceptance within the United States in general; Smoot's reputation as a straight-laced monogamist with few proselytizing credentials certainly added strength to this cause (40). According to Flake, the debate that ensued turned into a competition of deception rather than direct argumentation, as both sides stretched the truth to their own advantage (67). She explains, "The value of the [defense's] argument is not that it described the L.D...