February 18, 2016

Book Review: Mormonism and American Politics


Mormonism and American Politics. Edited by Randall Balmer and Jana Riess. 264 pp. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. $30.

Reviewed by Brenna Keegan

Mormonism and American Politics begins with the simple claim, “The story of Mormonism in America is inextricably tied to politics” (ix). Thirteen insightful case studies, written by some of the top Mormon studies scholars, persuasively argue the truth of this statement. Randall Balmer and Jana Riess’ edited volume moves beyond the familiar story of Mormons as political outsiders and gives voice to diverse political discourses.  Structured chronologically, Mormonism and American Politics is bookended by Joseph Smith’s 1844 campaign for president and an analysis of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. The pages within highlight the protean history of Mormon isolation and participation in national politics and American exceptionalism, the politics of polygamy, Mormon race relations, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ stalwart participation in the twentieth-century Republican Party.
The volume offers concise examples of Mormonism’s distinct and extensive participation in American politics. It complicates a narrative of gradual assimilation and the increasingly common project of comparing Mormon history with that of American Catholicism. One of the most compelling chapters, “On the ‘Underground’: What the Mormon ‘Yes on 8’ Campaign Reveals About the Future of Mormons in American Political Life,” by Joanna Brooks, highlights the internal conflicts of supporting anti-LGBT legislation and the distinctive theological stance of Mormon support for California’s Proposition 8.
Although Mormon women may not have historically played a strong public role in American politics, their absence from the volume is apparent. A strong chapter by Jana Riess looks at the nineteenth-century Cult of True Womanhood and Protestant women’s protest against Congressman-elect and polygamist B. H. Roberts, but Claudia L. Bushman’s “Mormon Women Talk Politics,” is an odd amalgamation of songs and personal reflection, with little scholarly analysis.
As one might expect, Mormonism and American Politics spends a substantial amount of time considering the legacy and influence of George and Mitt Romney. “Like Father, Unlike Son: The Governor’s Romney, the Kennedy Paradigm, and the Mormon Question” by Randall Balmer and “Mitt, Mormonism and the Media: An Unfamiliar Faith Takes the Stage in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election” by Peggy Fletcher Stack, add depth and breadth to the debate.

Of particular interest to this blog is the volume’s treatment of Mormonism not solely, or even primarily, as a religious anomaly of the American West, but an active participant in national politics and history. As Philip Barlow rightly notes, “The religion’s infancy was harbored in the nation’s adolescence; both took form together” (109). Well-researched, with short and concise chapters from a distinguished team of scholars, Mormonism and American Politics does not offer a definitive history, but begins the conversation in stride.

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