The party that on Tuesday will make history by giving its presidential nomination to a Mormon has its own less-uplifting history with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its adherents.
For most of its early decades, the GOP was staunchly against Mormons and their efforts to get the Utah territory admitted to the union. Not coincidentally, most Mormons were then Democrats. But even allowing for the raw political calculation that Republicans did not want a new state that would send Democrats to Washington, the vehemence of the Republican opposition was striking.
Much of the battle was over Mormons’ reluctance to give up polygamy. The very first Republican political platform, in 1856, condemned “those twin relics of barbarism—polygamy and slavery.” This was repeated in 1876 along with a demand for the “supremacy of American institutions in all the territories.” In 1884, Republicans bluntly took aim at the church by name, resolving “that it is the duty of Congress to enact such laws as shall promptly and effectually suppress the system of polygamy within our Territories; and divorce the political from the ecclesiastical power of the so-called Mormon church.” It added that the enforcement should be “by the military, if need be.”
It was the first time—and, along with the 1888 Republican platform, the only time—in American history that any Republican or Democratic platform singled out a specific religion for condemnation. It was even more pointed in 1888, when the party declared, “The political power of the Mormon Church in the Territories as exercised in the past is a menace to free institutions too dangerous to be longer suffered.” It promised legislation “stringent enough to divorce the political from the ecclesiastical power, and thus stamp out the attendant wickedness of polygamy.”
Two years later, the church rejected the practice of polygamy, leading to a softening of the next Republican platform, which stated rather mildly in 1892, “We are opposed to any union of Church and State.” At the same time, Mormon leaders made an effort to recruit more Republicans to further soften the GOP opposition to statehood. It was enough to clear the way for Utah to enter the union as the 45th state in 1896.
Now, 124 years after the party condemned the Mormon church as “a menace” and “too dangerous to be longer suffered,” the Republican Party is nominating for president a great-great-grandson of a church leader of that day and a man who, top aide Eric Fehrnstrom said on Monday, will talk in his acceptance address about his time as a Mormon bishop.