Mormon temple

Closest thing to SIPA west of the Mississippi

For the past two days, SIPA’s penthouse has played host to a conference entitled “Mormonism and American Politics,” and Bwog was there in the form of honorary Salt Lake Citizen Clava Brodsky. Lucky she attended, since this topic seems rather, well, topical! What follows are her notes from the field.

Birds probably have the best view of New York City, but for us humans, we’ll have to make do with the 15th floor of SIPA. The Empire State Building shimmers in the distance, the campus lies far below like a stately forum, and the sky looks positively scrapable. What better venue to host the conference on the Mormon religion and its place in American life than this room in the heavens!  The conference, hosted by CDTR (Center for the Study of Democracy, Tolerance and Religion) and IRCPL (Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life), was entitled, “Mormonism and American Politics: A Conference.”

Separation of church and state may be a fundamental tenant of American political life, but it doesn’t stop us from closely associating Republican candidate Mitt Romney with his Mormon faith. (Indeed, the organizers of the event, Jana Riess and Randall Balmer, had originally planned the event to fall on the weekend before the New Hampshire primary.) Many of the speakers mentioned Romney and his faith, but this was not the main focus of the conference. Instead, the papers predominantly focused on how the Church as a whole fits into the larger American context.

For Mormons, weird is the new normal, according to some of the talks at least. Professor David Campbell pointed out that Mormons see the epithet “peculiar people” as a compliment. Professor Russell Arben Fox insisted that “Mormonism is distinct from the prevailing civil order,” and journalist Peggy Fletcher Stack argued Mormons are “misunderstood” by mainstream media. Being “weird” almost seemed to be a point of pride and, as Professor Fox noted, shows that they “are members of the only True church on the face of the planet.” There may be a certain chic to being odd, but it rarely comes scorn-free. When one audience member pointed out that Christopher Hitchens said he’d never vote for a Mormon, another voice from the public shouted out, “Yeah, well, he’s dead!”

Claudia Bushman, professor of American Studies at Columbia, Joanna Brooks, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University, and Sally Barringer Gordon, Professor of Constitutional Law at UPenn, formed the spunky triumvirate, favoring a more critical approach to Church history and policy. Professor Gordon spearheaded the group and ended her talk on the victory of American law in 19th century Utah by taking a more pessimistic note. She looked at the transition from polygamy to monogamy in the State of Utah and highlighted the plight of displaced plural wives, who found themselves outside the law. (Barringer Gordon’s talk was magnificent. If anyone goes to UPenn Law School, take her class!) Bushman’s and Brooks’ talks focused on a more current issue and looked at the Mormon Church’s mobilization in support of Proposition 8. Rather than speaking to Mormons’ quasi-victimhood, their talks portrayed their own Church’s policies toward gay marriage as perpetuating and enabling the victimization of others. If this conference may speak for the larger Mormon community, it seems like there are some, who don’t want to see the Mormon Church as something wholly separate and weird. Instead, they want it to be American, not just in its origins, but in its ethics as well.

Salt Lake skyline via Wikimedia Commons.