When Reed Smoot arrived in Washington as a newly elected Utah senator a little over a century ago, he was left in no doubt what America thought of Mormons assuming positions of federal power.
“Perhaps it may be for the best that the Mormons should send an apostle to Washington,” opined Harper’s Weekly. “It stimulates the public disgust. They have thriven on ignorance, obscurity and sensuality. Attention of decent enlightened people is the last thing that will profit them.”
And that was among the more open-minded commentaries. For the next four years, from 1903 to 1907, Smoot was treated as little better than a one-man freak show as enemies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints subjected him to thousands of hours of hearings to deny him his seat.
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The church is recalling the saga with trepidation as one member, Mitt Romney, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, prepares for a serious tilt at the White House in 2008.
“The Smoot hearings were a watershed event in our relations with the United States and the world,” said Dallin Oaks, one of the 12 apostles who counsel the prophet, the Mormon equivalent of the Pope.
“If Romney should be the [Republican] nominee, the church will be in a position in the media that it has not been in since the Smoot hearings. You couldn’t read a newspaper for four or five years without reading about Mormons during the Smoot hearings.”
At the height of the row senators received up to 1,000 letters a day from apoplectic constituents.
Then, as now, polygamy, one of the church’s traditional doctrines, coloured judgment. And hoopla is assured again with the start next month of a new television drama about a polygamous Salt Lake City family.
The practice dates back to the church’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith, who said God told him to take wives like Abraham. He is reputed to have had more than 30 before being murdered by a mob in 1844 as he campaigned for the presidency.
After ferocious pressure from the federal government, in 1890 the then prophet banned polygamy. But as the Smoot hearings boiled, church leaders admitted that it was still practised by some in the hierarchy.
“At a critical point a powerful senator said he would vote for Smoot,” recalled Elder Oaks. “He said: ‘In the United States I would rather have a polygamist who doesn’t polyg than a monogamist who doesn’t monog.’
“It is puzzling to Mormons who have many polygamous ancestors like I do that people get so excited about polygamy. If a man has two wives there’s great excitement. If he has five mistresses it is hardly worth commenting.”
Relations between Mormons and the rest of America have improved immeasurably since then.
After their troubled attempt at founding their own heavenly kingdom in Utah in the mid-19th century, Mormons have fanned out across the United States. And with their clean-cut lifestyle – no alcohol, no smoking, no coffee – they are widely welcomed as model citizens.
In 1978 the church made another break with its past when it allowed black men into the priesthood. Women are still banned.
While doctrine remains conservative, Mormons are prominent in both parties. Harry Reid, the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, is a Mormon. But is America ready for a Mormon president?
Kirk Jowers, the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, thinks it is. He said: “The country is much more ready for a Mormon president today than America was for a Catholic president in 1958 – and that, of course, was just two years before John Kennedy won.”
Polls suggest, however, that the old suspicions – in particular over the church’s secrecy, polygamous past and rituals -linger.
While social conservatives, a key voting bloc for Republicans, have much in common with Mr Romney, some evangelicals dispute that Mormonism is a Christian faith. The telegenic Mr Romney is already moving to inoculate himself against this.
He is a conservative with a good track record as an executive, having rescued the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics from near disaster and made them a great success.
“The great majority of Americans and the great majority of people in my own party couldn’t care less what someone’s religion is,” he told journalists recently.
First, however, the church faces fresh prurient scrutiny. One of America’s prime cable channels, HBO, is next month launching Big Love, a mini-series about a man living in Salt Lake City with three wives and seven children.
He has left one of dozens of polygamous cults that have broken away from the church and still exist in isolated parts of America.
Each episode opens with the disclaimer that the church has outlawed polygamy. Yet, inevitably, it will rekindle negative stereotypes.
Elder Oaks said: “There is a danger in protesting too much. For people who see the goodness of practising Mormons it’s not an issue. But for people who don’t know Mormons it will be forever an issue.”
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