Monday, July 30, 2007

The Book Revue: The Politics of American Religious Identy, by Kathleen Flake

Since it's been a few weeks since I finished it, I owe an installment to the Book Revue. Kathleen Flake's The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle is worth a read for anyone who has interest in Mormon history, the decline of the Protestant political establishment, or church-state issues in the U.S.

What you have to know about Kathleen Flake is that she is incredibly smart. She possesses not only a historian's ability to survey huge amounts of material, but also the analytical gift of distilling a clean, precise, conclusion. She combines these scholarly gifts with the faith and experience of living inside the Mormon church. As a result, her writing is simultaneously challenging and uplifting to faithful and outsiders alike. I was first introduced to her through her 1992 Essay "Supping with the Lord: a Liturgical Theology of the LDS Sacrament." Her thoughtful analysis of one of the core ordinances of Mormonism takes a look at the similarities and differences between the two prayers, and between this ordinance as compared to other Eucharistic rituals. The combination of close textual analysis and thoughtful faith is rare in a world where writing about religion too often devolves into criticisms or apologetics.

This book is no different. In it, Flake examines how the church went from being an isolated polygamous, theocratic sect holed up in the Rocky Mountains to being the integrated conservative, uber-American, ultra-patriotic, nuclear family centered church that it is today. The traditional narrative accepted in Mormon studies placed the crux of that transition at the moment of President Woodruff's manifesto.

But one major problem with the traditional narrative is that the manifesto was in many ways a non-event. The church was locked in a fight with the republican federal government, both sides committed to win, and the situation changed very little immediately after the manifesto. Though we take it seriously today, it wasn't always regarded as so binding. While "the church" didn't sanction or solemnize plural marriages after the manifesto, several apostles did, with knowledge (and some have argued, implicit approval) of the President of the Church. While the excerpts appended to the manifesto in the current printing of the scriptures uses the language of revelation and vision, The language of the manifesto itself presents itself not as binding, but as "advice," and grounds itself not in revelation, but in the fact that plural marriages are "against the law of the land." (Greg Smith's article gives a more comprehensive view of post-manifesto polygamy). There were enough Mormons still continuing to marry polygamously that President Joseph F. Smith issued what is sometimes called the "Second Manifesto" in 1904. The major difference from the 1890 manifesto is that it specifically threatened excommunication to solemnizers of plural marriages. The fact is that the 1890 manifesto was not the colossal moment that some historians have made it out to be.

Flake's book asserts that it was Reed Smoot's election to the Senate that precipitated the change associated with the Second Manifesto. She details how the Senate at the time was dominated by a powerful but weakening protestant establishment; not an organization, but the informal cooperation of individuals and groups with a shared understanding and agenda. The Smoot hearings were the clash between the (largely) republican protestant movement and the Mormon church. Bent on destroying the remaining "twin relic of barbarism," the republican party was not going to back down. However, this time the fight was political; it was fought in committee rooms rather than on the battlefield and in the courtroom and the jailhouse. The result was compromise and accommodation on both sides.

But most surprising to me, was the portrait that Flake paints of Joseph F. Smith. I came away from this book viewing President Smith not just as a prophet, but as a brilliant strategist who was forced to act as an intermediary between the hostile federal government and his own people. Flake explores how at the same time he committed the church to the eradication of polygamy, President Smith also began to place renewed emphasis on the First Vision to ensure that the church would not lose its uniqueness. With its commonwealth assimilated, its independence a thing of the past, and its most distinctive practices abolished, President Smith turned the church to its distinctive doctrines.

And one need not worry that Flake's book is damaging to Mormon faith. While I wouldn't make it part of the Sunday School curriculum, it tells a faithful, honest story. It must be remembered that Flake is a Latter-day Saint, which makes it clear that while the issues raised by this period of church history may challenge the understanding, they do not have to destroy or weaken faith. Recently, even Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve spoke favorably of this book, calling it "the best thing ever written on [the church's transition from isolation to assimilation]." On Joseph F. Smith's role in the transition, Elder Oaks says that Flake "
wrote about that so movingly, and I’d never thought of it. That was something that was new to me, but it rang true." (Read the whole interview here.)

Bottom line: The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle is a great, well-researched, and thoughtful book. It ought to be required reading for anyone interested in studying Mormon history at the turn of the century.


Warren said...

The book sounds interesting. I've read some about the post Manifesto polygamy (one reason why there are so many American Mormons in Mexico), but I haven't studies it a whole lot.

JKC said...

The abundance of Mormon American-Mexicans is probably due more to polygamous families that went down before the manifesto but after the republican federal government began its quest to destroy polygamy rather than to post-manifesto polygamy. Church leaders figured that it wasn't illegal in Mexico and that they would be able to preactice it there without harassment.

The Greg Smith article isn't a bad place to start, because its available on the web. I don't agree with all his conclusions, but the facts are told pretty well. Flake's book is better, but polygamy isn't really the main focus, even though it figures prominently in the story.