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The Political Culture of Mormon History

By: Ben P - July 05, 2013

[This is the first post in our “Mormonism & Politics” series for the month of July; it also repeats and expands articles from a roundtable on “The New New Political History,” hosted at The Junto in January.]

This political sketch of Joseph Smith leading a Nauvoo Legion filled with women embodies the intersecting categories of gender, power, and politics of political culture.

This political sketch of Joseph Smith leading a Nauvoo Legion filled with women embodies the intersecting categories of gender, power, and politics of political culture.

Methodological and historiographical trends tend to lag behind in Mormon scholarship, but many new theories typically do end up taking root and making an impact. The New Social History move of the 1970s became nearly synonymous with New Mormon History, post-structuralism influenced discussions of Mormon founding narratives, and phenemonological approaches have recently taken hold of projects that attempt to capture the lived experience of Latter-day Saints. These methods have all enriched the scholarship on the pages of Journal of Mormon History and enlivened the halls of the Mormon History Association, though incorporation remains stagnant and uneven, primarily due to the mixed nature of the field. The further progression of Mormon scholarship within the broader academy will depend on its ability to better appropriate these and numerous other methodological tools in order to produce a more sophisticated corpus.

One arena in which Mormon history can not only utilize but actually progress broader historiographical issues is the still developing field of political culture. The trajectory of political history needs not repeating here; suffice it to say that, in a ridiculously simplified framework that focuses on Early America as an example, the field moved through the progressive historians like Charles Beard (who identified political ideals as the superficial gloss of personal interests) to the neo-whigs Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood (who synthesized the “republican” thesis and emphasized the ideological notions of politics) to the social historians like Alfred Young (who eschewed ideals and emphasized quantitative social contexts) to finally the cultural historians of today. The New New Political Historians attempted to make the field relevant again by broadening the scope and centralizing the margins, a move that sought to merge the ideological and the social, encompass a wider array of historical actors, and redefine the notion of “politics” itself. Rather than focusing on malignant individual interests, the de-contextualized conversation of political ideals, or the narrow manifistations of political action, they aimed to better capture the culture that both created and was created by political beliefs, events, and, most importantly, transformations.[1]

And if Joseph Smith could arm women, so could Brigham Young! (Thus demonstrating the prevalence of the female image in Mormon political depiction--must be an important one, after all.)

And if Joseph Smith could arm women, so could Brigham Young! (Thus demonstrating the prevalence of the female image in Mormon political depiction–must be an important one, after all.)

Perhaps most salient for our purposes, they reappropriated the often contested notion of “political culture” to mean cultural assumptions rather than merely practical results; the “political” now became a dynamic blend of competing ideas, contexts, and expectations rather than a mere calculation of what happened at the voting box or was written in pamphlets and newspapers. (Though the latter certainly remained part of the formula in the former.) By focusing on the development of democratic processes and forms of culture helped to transcend static categories of the past, especially the divide between the elite and common; all were touched by the wide-ranging tentacles of cultural angst. This enabled more inclusion of those who weren’t rich white males, and thus an explosion of important political work that included women, African-Americans, Natives, and, recently, children.[2]

As much as Mormonism has intersected with politics in important and dynamic ways, Mormon historiography has rarely intersected with the theories of political history. Prior to teh last decade, most political histories of Mormonism focus on straight narrative and quantitative history—Joseph Smith’s political beliefs, the governmental structure of territorial Utah, or the John Birch-style politics of Ezra Taft Benson, for example. The prevalence of lawyers within the field has also ensured plenty of histories of basic legal developments connected to the expulsion from Jackson County, the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, or the economic models of Deseret, and the fraught context of Mormon patriotism has drawn numerous (and often flawed) explanations of Mormon political theology, particularly related to the Constitution. (See here for a collection of some essays on that topic, which often lacked academic rigor and historical context.) Perhaps the only work that engaged political culture was Marvin Hill’s still-useful Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism (Signature, 1989), though that work is limted based on its use of a social model that was in favor during Hill’s graduate work decades before and has since fallen out of style. The true breakthrough came from the early-aughts, both from Chapel Hill, of all places: Sally Gordon’s The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (UNC Press, 2002) demonstrated the relevance of polygamy prosecutions in capturing the culture of constitutionality and religious freedom in the post-bellum period, and Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (UNC Press, 2004) which poignantly captured the debates over pluralism in America’s progressive era.[3]

Are you convinced that gender is an important component of the Mormon political image yet?

Are you convinced that gender is an important component of the Mormon political image yet?

Now, after that dry and bloated historiographical background, allow me to briefly 1) identify how Mormon history can benefit from adopting these trends, and 2) posit how Mormon history can actually improve these trends as well.

The field of Mormon history has long called for a better attempt to capture non-male, non-white voices. Political culture is one way in which that can be accomplished. Some of the most exciting work in the New New Political History has focused on the role of women within the debates over cultural power, and though women often became the objects rathern than the subjects of these studies, they brought exciting new possibilities of how the re-framing of our narratives influences the results and lessons.[4] Similar work can be used to engage the influence from and on African-Americans and Natives, especially when the historians focuses on the debates over authority was shaped, implemented, and reaffirmed.[5] More importantly, such an approach better integrates Mormon history within its broader context, because Mormons become merely more actors within the larger play of American democratic practices, a narrative that ebbs, flows, zigs, and zags in numerous directions with a myriad of responses.[6]

And finally, this is perhaps one of the fields that Mormon history can truly make an important contribution to the larger historiographical movement. Despite of the many hallmarks of the recent methodological trends within political history, there has been a dearth of religion within these studies. This is a curious point, I think, because I think it’s generally agreed upon that religion—however you want to define it and however many denominations you want to include—played a primary role in how citizens experienced early republic life. This, I think, is strange, especially compared to similar histories in other fields. Linda Colley’s classic Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (Yale UP, revised ed, 2005), which performs the type of political, social, and cultural history that the NNPH aims to accomplish, is replete with British religiosity and the role that religion played in British politics, society, and culture. American religious historians have done much to incorporate elements of political history into their analysis of religious culture—Jon Butler and Nathan Hatch come to mind—but a reciprocal infusion of religion into political culture has yet to occur.

One more, just for fun. Especially since it goes with Edje's excellent post on Mormons and octopuses.

One more, just for fun. Especially since it goes with Edje’s excellent post on Mormons and octopuses.

This is, I think, where Mormon history can prove to be especially useful: Mormonism, perhaps more than any other American denomination, can demonstrate how religion influences political culture, rather than the other way around. How do religious beliefs, practices, and worldviews impact the political realities, political beliefs, and political actions of Americans? This can be seen in the theo-democratic musings of nineteenth-century Mormons as well as the Rise of the New Right thinkers in the twentieth-. Two upcoming works, one forthcoming and the other in progress, demonstrate the potential of this intersection: Christine Talbot’s history (due later this year) of polygamy debates both demonstrated and influenced the tensions over public and private in the nineteenth-century, and Patrick Mason’s intellectual history of Ezra Taft Benson (still in the early stages of writing) will explore how religion, in its various forms, can shape the politics of individuals (and vice versa).

This is an exciting and important moment in Mormon political history and, if current trends continue, political history writ large.

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And the women aren't always displayed as being in control--indeed, political culture provides the tools to analyze how women utilized power.

And the women aren’t always displayed as being in control–indeed, political culture provides the tools to analyze how women utilized power.

[1] For an overview, see William G. Shade, “Commentary: Deja Vu All Over Again: Is There a New New Political History?” in Jeffrey L. Pasley, Andrew Robertson, and David Waldstreicher, eds., Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004): 387-412; Chris Beneke, “The New, New Political History,” Reviews in American History 33, no. 3 (Sept. 2005): 314-324.

[2] For a recent example of this, see Ray Raphael, Alfred F. Young, and Gary Nash, Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of a Nation (New York: Knopf, 2011).

[3] This shouldn’t be taken as an exhaustive overview of Mormon political history, but as a “oh-crap-I-need-some-historigraphical-background-imma-rush-and-insert-a-paragraph” inclusion.

[4] Most successful attempts at this include Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Susan Branson, These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women and Political Culture in Early National Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

[5] This is the approach I tried to do in my “Early Mormon Patriarchy and the Paradoxes of Democratic Religiosity in Jacksonian America,” American Nineteenth Century History (2013). See here.

[6] Perhaps the most successful embodiments of these approaches from recent years are the works done on anti-Mormonism, especially Patrick Mason’s The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Post-Bellum South (Oxford UP) and Spencer Fluhman’s Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (UNC Press), both of which explore, albeit indirectly, the political culture that resulted in the wake of disestablishment.



4 Comments

  1. Great post, Ben. A lot of things to think about as we ponder new ideas for papers, as well as blog posts for the month!

    Comment by J Stuart — July 5, 2013 @ 11:38 pm

  2. Great introduction, Ben.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 6, 2013 @ 10:35 am

  3. […] The Political Culture of Mormon History (Ben Park, Juvenile Instructor) […]

    Pingback by Volume 2.27 (July 1-7) « The Nightstand @ Weightier Matters of the Law — July 14, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

  4. Thank you for the comments. As a non-Utah Mormon I was begining to think that I was one of the few non academics who would muse about the 19th century cultural influences on the develpment of LDS political thought; and especially the development of a unique LDS cultural identity.

    Also how external and internal forces influneced the supression of certain doctrianl practices by women that are begining to reappear as the outside world is becoming more accepting of divergent cultural beliefs.

    Comment by Art Thomas — July 15, 2013 @ 2:24 pm