The American Fear of “Church Broke” Mormons

This past Sunday, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gathered for the final day of the 186th Semiannual General Conference, news spread of controversial leaked videos. Ryan McKnight, who claims to have received the videos from an unnamed source, uploaded more than a dozen recordings to youtube, which quickly received thousands of views. These videos are from standard briefings church authorities receive from invited guests, and are supposedly recorded for leaders unable to attend. Now there are plenty of things to discuss concerning the ethics of the leaks, the tensions within the videos, and the nature of these types of meetings, but what I’m interested in is the historical genealogy and cultural potency of one brief phrase: Ralph Hardy, an area authority of the Church who introduced former Senator Gordon Smith, joked about Smith’s staff as “church broke.” The statement implies that these individuals, though non-Mormon, were “broke” in the sense that they were willing to follow the orders of LDS leaders, just as one would “break” a horse to follow your commands. “Not many months ago,” Hardy riffed, “[Smith’s] legislative director called me on the phone and said, ‘Ralph, you haven’t called us in six weeks, what are we supposed to be doing?'”

Now, I actually don’t think Hardy meant the phrase as earnestly as some have believed. The nature of the meeting, and the tone of his remarks, seem predisposed for humorous exaggeration of that sort. And even Senator Smith’s comment that he treasured his temple recommend over his constituency’s approval, which might raise some eyebrows concerning his primary point of allegiance (and may cause him some trouble back home), was probably more a reflection of the meeting’s context than his actual belief. He seems like a smart guy, all things considered, and I assume that he embraces modern suspicions of ecclesiastical influence in political governance. I don’t believe either Hardy or Smith believe that LDS senators should take their orders from Salt Lake City, nor do I think Mormon leaders expect them to. (Though perhaps there is a spectrum, and they are likely a lot further to one end of the spectrum than I’d feel comfortable.) But whatever their sincerity, their remarks hint to a long history of clashes between the Mormon Church and the American federal body over one’s political fidelity.

Fears of Mormon leaders’ manipulation of American voting patterns were present from Joseph Smith’s era, and for good reason. Smith often endorsed political candidates, both at the state and national level, and boasted of the Church’s ability to vote in bloc. This understandably raised the ire of his neighbors. One observer argued that while the Mormons “have the same rights as other religious bodies,” as soon as their prophet dictated political participation they “step[ped] beyond the proper sphere of [a] religious denomination, and become a political body.” The basic principles of disestablishment, which separated ecclesiastical authority from forms of governance, dictated that religious authorities should not direct their followers’ electoral actions. Such corruption had to be opposed, and the conflict was at the forefront of Smith’s leadership until his death. Things did not quiet down after Smith’s death and Brigham Young led the Church to Utah. The first territorial elections featured Young being appointed governor and other church leaders filling nearly every other post. (Though, to be fair, there wasn’t much competition.) One of the key conflicts between the federal government and the people of Deseret was the issue over how much control Mormon leaders wielded in the political sphere. It wasn’t until the Church dropped their individual political organization, the “People’s Party,” and accepted America’s two-party system that tensions began to cool.

But the big transition moment, and the period in which all these debates splashed all over the national press, was when Reed Smoot, a Mormon apostle, was elected a United States Senator. As Kathleen Flake outlined in her wonderful book, Smoot was accused of being a plant on behalf of the LDS Church to manipulate activities in Washington. How could someone sworn to follow the will of a heretical prophet actually place the interests of the nation above those of his faith? A several-year trial ensued that covered issues like prophetic counsel (then-prophet Joseph F. Smith memorably dodged questions regarding his revelatory authority), the continued and illegal perpetuation of plural marriage (which led to the “second manifesto” and the release of two apostles who continued to countenance the practice), and the secret temple oaths that allegedly bound endowed Mormons (like Smoot) to seek revenge upon the American nation. Basically, the trial was to find out whether Smoot was “church broke.”


Perhaps the epitome of the “Church Broke” fear, Reed Smoot was depicted in this 1904 Puck Magazine cartoon of being planted in the senate by the sinister “Mormon Hierarchy.”

The result of the trial is a familiar tale. Smoot and his fellow Church leaders made the concessions needed to (mostly) acquiesce senators of their fears, and the American political body (mostly) decided that Mormonism’s controversial beliefs and practices weren’t enough to bar its members from elected office. Yet the dynamic dance between the Mormon Church and the American government over the primacy of allegiance continued in uneven ways throughout the twentieth century. In the 1950s and 1960s, an ecumenical moment that witnessed John F. Kennedy assuring voters that his Catholicism would not dictate his presidential actions, membership in the LDS faith was seen as a virtue for elected candidates. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson or Governor George Romney were praised for their balance of Mormon virtues and civic duty. And though Mitt Romney faced some suspicions during his presidential runs, they never equaled the deep vitriol found in the accusations the century before.

The general narrative of this story reflected one of the general tenets of a secular and pluralist society: even though religious belief could still serve as powerful instigators in the political realm, Americans (both Mormon and non-) eschewed the influence of religious leaders upon their congregants’ political participation. Freedom of conscience was to be untrammeled. That is, people can look inward to their spiritual convictions, but not outward to their ecclesiastical authorities, when entering the voting booth. This had been a sticking point for Mormons (as well as other groups like the Catholics) during the nineteenth century, but had largely been fully adopted in the twentieth. The thing so striking about the “church broke” statement, then, was how out of line it feels within contemporary Mormon political discourse.

Perhaps the fact that Ralph Hardy felt comfortable enough to joke about a Mormon senator’s staff being “church broke,” not to mention the fact that there hasn’t been an outcry in response to the leaked dialogue, demonstrates how far we have come since the era of Reed Smoot. (Though imagine if that came out during Romney’s 2012 campaign!) Yet the remark hearkens back to the tumultuous relationship between the LDS Church and the nation in which it was birthed, the tricky questions of religious disestablishment, and the continued entanglements between religion and politics in America’s democratic experiment.

[The featured image is “Hiding Behind the Temple, Reed Smoot Draws the Fire of the Protestants,” Salt Lake Tribune, December 22, 1904, which was an attempt to highlight Smoot’s secretive temple oaths.]

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