Mormonism and Democratic Politics: Are They Compatible?

Richard Bushman is probably the great LDS historian of our generation, much as Leonard Arrington was of his. Under the auspices of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Bushman sat down with a group of journalists to try to explain, from a historical perspective, LDS interaction with society and politics. His comments, as always, are insightful, informed, and honest. A sample:

Joseph Smith was nominated as a protest candidate in February of 1844. Like other protest candidates, he began to warm to his work and got quite excited about it. He may have dreamed for a moment that through some strange concatenation of events, he would get elected. Every candidate has to dream such things.

His involvement in politics was manifested in a political platform of which he was very proud. He would bring it out whenever he had visitors and read from it. It is an interesting document because it represents a man whose world had been his own people, whose own project had been to create a kingdom of God, and who now had to turn his mind to politics.

He began by citing the Declaration of Independence, the famous passages about all men being equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, which of course could be a lead-in to religious rights. But he didn’t use it that way. Instead, in the very next sentence, he talked about the obvious contradiction: “Some two or three million people are held as slaves for life because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours.” His platform called for the elimination of slavery, proposing that the funds from the sale of Western lands, a major source of revenue along with the tariff in those days, be devoted to purchasing slaves from their masters in order to avoid the conflict that would otherwise ensue.

Josiah Quincy, soon to be mayor of Boston, visited Joseph Smith in the spring of 1844 when this platform was in circulation. Much later, Quincy wrote about that visit, saying that Joseph Smith’s proposal for ending slavery resembled one that Emerson made 11 years later in 1855.

As Quincy put it, writing retrospectively in the 1880s, “We, who can look back upon the terrible cost of the fratricidal war which put an end to slavery, now say that such a solution of the difficulty” – Joseph Smith’s and Emerson’s – “would have been worthy a Christian statesman. But if the retired scholar was in advance of his time when he advocated this disposition of the public property in 1855, what shall I say of the political and religious leader who had committed himself, in print, as well as in conversation, to the same course in 1844?”

I cite this example to illustrate the radical tone of Joseph Smith’s political thought, which seemed to carry over from his religious radicalism. It extended to prison reform and better treatment of seamen, big issues in the 1840s and 1850s. Smith seemed to identify with all of the underdogs in society. I think that was why he thought he might get elected – because the little people, the beat-up people, would rise and select him.

Read the whole thing. Hat tip to Meridian Magazine. ..bruce..

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