Nov. 6, 2012, the day that Latter-day Saint Mitt Romney claimed 58 million votes in the presidential election, may qualify as the most important day — ever — in Mormon history. What had long been America’s most reviled, and openly rebellious, religious minority had become certifiably mainstream.
Less than a 100 years ago, every young male Mormon joining the church had to recite an “oath of vengeance” against the United States, swearing to seek revenge for the 1844 killing of church founder Joseph Smith. Until 1927, Mormons vowed “to avenge the blood of the prophets upon this nation, and . . . teach the same to your children.”
For understandable reasons, Romney’s campaign literature failed to mention that he hails from a distinguished band of American outlaws. As a teenager, his grandfather traveled through Apache country in 1886 to join his father in Mexico, where the family had moved to practice polygamy, illegal in the United States since 1862. (And also illegal in Mexico, by the way.) It’s safe to assume that all of Romney’s Mormon ancestors, with the exception of his father, swore the oath of vengeance against the country Romney himself came within a few million votes of leading.
What happened? How did a people and a religion that spent much of the 19th century in open defiance of the United States, its laws and its values, spawn a flag-waving presidential candidate and develop a reputation for red-white-and-blue political loyalty? Around the turn of the 20th century, the Prophets and Revelators who lead the Mormon church grew weary of defending their extremely peculiar institution — polygamy — against federal power. They experienced a revelation, if you will: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Like any assimilation-minded minority, the Mormons became more American than the Americans. Economically, of course, Mormons are super-capitalists, “addicted to hard work,” as historian David Brion Davis once observed. This is somewhat ironic, as Joseph Smith, in a brief flirtation with communistic property ownership, urged his first converts to consecrate their worldly goods to the church.
Similarly, 20th-century Mormons embraced social conservatism, so they could never again be accused of disloyalty to the American government. The Mormons forged alliances with the Boy Scouts of America and the American temperance movement. Contrary to popular belief, Mormons didn’t obsessively avoid alcohol and caffeine during the lifetimes of Joseph Smith and his successor, Brigham Young.
More recently, the Salt Lake City-based church ham-handedly agitated for passage of California’s anti-gay marriage Prop. 8 in 2008, alienating millions of Californians and gay Americans — and many Mormons — in the process. Those with long memories will recall Salt Lake’s crusade against the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s.
If ever there was a gathering of latter-day Beaver Cleavers, it would be the squeaky-clean Mitt Romney clan, whom we briefly came to know over the last six months. Tagg, Matt, Josh, Craig, Ben? Who can tell these square-jawed exemplars of American manhood apart? I approached one of them at the Wolfeboro, N.H., Fourth of July parade, and asked, “Are you Tagg?” He wasn’t, but I forget which one he was.
Politically, modern Mormons embraced the right wing. Church President and Prophet Ezra Taft Benson, who served in Dwight Eisenhower’s cabinet, was a devoted fan of the John Birch Society who thought of running for vice president on George Wallace’s segregationist ticket in 1968. Mormons are still overwhelmingly Republican, Senator Harry Reid and Utah’s one Democratic representative notwithstanding.
Romney was not the first Latter-day Saint to run for president. Joseph Smith mounted a farcical campaign for the White House in 1844, a quixotic venture that even his running mate called “a wild goose chase.” Smith was assassinated in June, five months before any votes were cast. Much ink has been spilled analyzing Romney’s shortcomings as a candidate, but 57 million of his countrymen wanted him to move into the White House.
If a swing state or two had voted Romney’s way, he would have been reciting the presidential oath of office, a far cry from the treasonous oath of vengeance sworn by his forbears. He lost, but the Mormons won. The outsiders are on the inside, to stay.
Globe columnist Alex Beam is writing a book about Joseph Smith.