Is LDS polygamy history relevant to 2012 campaign?

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 18 2012 1:58 p.m. MST

A Washington Post editorial writer believes the history of conflict between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the United States of America over the issue of polygamy is relevant more than 100 years later because of the presidential possibilities of Mitt Romney.

"If he wins the presidency, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Mormon bishop, would not be the first president to confess a historically disfavored faith," writes Charles Lane on the Post's PostPartisan blog site. "But Romney would be the first who belongs to a church that the U.S. government actually tried to crush."

Lane reviews the history of conflict on the issue, noting that "only a minority (of Mormons) actually practiced" plural marriage before it was officially discontinued by the LDS Church in 1890 (it should be noted that last week's Pew Research Center survey, "Mormons in America," showed that only 2 percent of those who currently identify themselves as Mormons see polygamy as "morally acceptable").

"This long-ago struggle, in which Mormons and non-Mormons shed blood, is complicated even in hindsight," Lane writes. "Anti-Mormonism was not a pure case of intolerance; polygamy did threaten women's equality. Yet the Supreme Court's assertion of a 'Christian' basis to constitutional law and federal punishment of all Mormons for the actions of a minority are hard to justify by modern standards."

Lane notes that "contrary to foes' predictions that the LDS would wither without polygamy, Mormonism flourished in the 20th century … Yet many Americans still do not know quite what to make of them."

He cites recent public opinion polls, documentaries and political statements suggesting confusion within the ranks of the general public about how to perceive Mormonism and whether or not they can in good conscience support a Mormon politician.

"Americans are products but not prisoners of our history," Lane concludes. "Like Mormonism, U.S. democracy was invented in the New World, and it's still being reinvented. Hence the prospect of a presidential contest between an incumbent whose race would have made him an outcast 125 years ago — and a challenger whose creed would have done the same."

In South Carolina, where Romney currently has a significant lead over his Republican presidential rivals heading into the state's important primary on Saturday, the polygamy discussion hasn't come to the surface. In fact, religious and political leaders are saying that Mormonism won't be a factor in the voting like it was in 2008, according to

the Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein.

"Unlike last time, when Romney made a historic speech about his faith, this time he's halting all talk of religion, and church officials are halting all talk of him," Boorstein wrote.

For the Mormon perspective she spoke to Terryl Givens, a Latter-day Saint who is a professor of religion at the University of Richmond.

"In the South especially, there's this resistance to highlighting our 'otherness,'" Givens said. "There is this ambiguity for Mormons when they picture a Mormon president. Do we really want to be mainstreamed? People have said to me, 'Do we really want the entire image of Mormonism to depend on the performance of one guy?'"

According to Boorstein, "Romney's campaign is making a calculation in 2012."

"This time," she writes, "his advisers say that he isn't even meeting with faith groups directly and they have no outreach staff specifically for faith groups. A campaign flyer making its rounds last week in South Carolina focused on Romney's 'deep and abiding faith' but never named it."

Boorstein also quoted Marie Cornwall, an LDS sociologist at BYU, said that while Romney's reluctance to talk about his religion may be based on campaign strategy, it is also cultural.

"Mormons are very averse to conflict," Cornwall said. "You have those kinds of conversations around the table, but only with like-minded people. It's a politeness thing."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com

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