Posted on Sunday, January 24, 2010 7:54:22 PM by Colofornian
When the Mormon pioneers headed West under duress in 1847, they had reason to feel bitter at their treatment by the world’s foremost liberal democracy. For years, Americans had chased, robbed, beaten and killed them.
Joseph Smith, seeking redress for his people, earlier had gone to Washington, D.C. The towering statesmen of the day who received him acted like, well, Washington politicians.
According to Smith, the legendary Henry Clay said, “You had better go to Oregon.” The revered John C. Calhoun counseled, “It is a nice question, a critical question, but it will not do to agitate it.” And the ultimate inside-the-beltway waffling came from President Martin Van Buren: “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you.”
Following Smith’s death, and encouraged by belligerent neighbors with guns, the Saints turned their wagons west. They might have turned their backs forever on the United States of Hypocrisy. Instead, they considered themselves the last Real Americans, the legitimate heirs of the pilgrims and Founding Fathers.
And, they believed, the very survival of the Constitution depended on the Saints. From Smith on, LDS leaders prophesied the Constitution would one day hang by a thread, only to be saved by Mormons.
When (LDS) U.S. Sen. Hatch recently went on (LDS) talk radio host Glenn Beck’s show and said the Constitution is hanging by a thread (threatened, one supposes, by President Barack Obama’s “socialist agenda” like it never had been by slavery, the Civil War, the Great Depression, McCarthyism, or a president forced to resign for criminal conduct), Hatch was speaking “code” to those in the know. To others it still made for a rollicking right-wing, red meat sound bite.
If the rest of the country was going to hell, then the Saints would protect its sacred heart in their mountain fastness. Brigham Young famously said he loved the Constitution, but did not love “the damn rascals who administer the government.”
This love/hate would define Mormon relations with America for a generation.
Polygamy was publicly acknowledged in 1852 and Mormons threw themselves into becoming experts on the Constitution, especially on the religious freedom bits. They were that era’s civil libertarians. Curiously, their arguments defending non-traditional marriage are being echoed by gay marriage advocates this very week in a California courtroom. No matter. Moral outrage was fierce toward Mormons and polygamy.
Young plaintively observed, “There is not a territory in the Union that is looked upon with so suspicious an eye as is Utah, and yet it is the only part of the nation that cares anything about the Constitution.”
America wasn’t buying it. It was tautological nonsense to say one loved the Constitution but hated its government and laws. The United States wanted more than lip service to its institutions — it demanded loyalty. The screws were applied and laws stripped The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of its property and turned its leadership into fugitives. To avoid destruction, the church finally cried, “Uncle Sam!”
The Manifesto, issued in 1890 by Wilford Woodruff, ended the practice of polygamy and paved the way for Utah’s admission to the Union. Ever after, Woodruff took pains to connect the dots between love of the Constitution and fealty to its government. “We live in a government raised up by the God of heaven.”
And if anyone missed the point, Woodruff prayed at the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, “Confer abundant favors upon the president, his Cabinet and Congress … Show them that we are their friends, that we love liberty … and give unto us and our children an increased disposition to always be loyal.”
However, old habits die hard. Recent polling found Mormons to be the most conservative of the conservative; the strictest of the strict constructionists. Inflexible in their devotion to the Constitution, apt to quote Young’s hate of “the damn rascals who administer the government.”
Another Young quote:
“The signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution were inspired from on high to do that work. But was that which was given to them perfect, not admitting of any addition whatever? No; for if men know anything, they must know that the Almighty has never yet found a man in mortality that was capable, at the first intimation, at the first impulse, to receive anything in a state of entire perfection. They laid the foundation, and it was for after generations to rear the superstructure upon it. It is a progressive — a gradual work.”
Pat Bagley is The Salt Lake Tribune’s political cartoonist.