The U.S. secretary of state once called for a ban on Mormon immigration, a painful moment in our country’s history. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at that time, in 1879, was openly practicing and defending polygamy, an institution that many saw as an affront to American values.
It should be surprising then that leaders of the LDS Church have not yet provided an immediate response to President Trump’s executive orders regarding immigrants and refugees from Muslim nations. Mormon officials should be leading the opposition to these actions.
Back when they faced stiff opposition in the 19th century, some lawmakers worried that there was something even more sinister going on with the fringe sect located in the Utah Territory, especially as thousands of converts poured in from Europe.
Mormon immigrants, according to then-Secretary of State William Evarts, were “drawn mainly from the ignorant classes, who are easily influenced by the double appeal to their passions and their poverty.” He declared that “all who come to this country for the purpose of affiliating with the Mormon Church do so with the avowed intention of becoming criminals.” Mormons were a foreign threat to the American body.
Trump’s executive order should remind Mormons that they, too, faced a similar situation not that long ago. Part of Mormon hesitancy may be rooted in the past century of political assimilation and conservative affiliation. The proposed 19th-century ban on Mormons was never fully implemented, and the very idea of it sounds preposterous to modern ears.
After the LDS Church renounced the practice of polygamy in 1890 and adopted America’s two-party system, Mormons took a long and sometimes awkward path toward the cultural mainstream. They were part of the coalition in the latter half of the 20th century that formed the religious right, a movement that converged traditional religious voices with conservative values.
Today, Mormons in America are one of the most reliable voting blocs for the Republican Party. Though there were moments during the 2016 election when it appeared LDS voters might turn away from Trump’s candidacy, they eventually supported the Republican nominee (though in lower numbers than in previous elections). And in a move that surprised — and disappointed — many, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was one of the few groups that agreed to sing at Trump’s inauguration.
Exactly one week after Mormon singers ushered in the new administration, Trump signed executive orders that fulfilled his year-long promise for a “Muslim ban.” To the chagrin of those who claimed Trump’s campaign promises were mere threats, his promise has become a reality.
Besides the immigration restrictions based on religious principles, members and leaders of the Mormon faith should be especially repulsed by the orders regarding refugees. Taking care of the downtrodden from war-torn communities is rooted not only in Christian and biblical, but also in the LDS, tradition.
Mormons were themselves refugees at various periods in their history, especially after being expelled from Missouri in the late-1830s, when the governor declared that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.” Once washed ashore on the beaches of Illinois, local residents took in the beleaguered Mormons and nursed them back to health.
While Mormon relations in the state worsened to the point of another expulsion within a decade, the LDS Church learned the lessons concerning caring for refugee bodies. City ordinances passed in the Mormon town of Nauvoo welcomed “Mohammedans,” the period’s shorthand for Muslims. Both religious groups were social outcasts outside the Protestant mainstream.
Once in Utah, persecuted converts from areas throughout the world hastened to “Zion” in hopes of experiencing religious liberty. The LDS Church has retained a rhetorical commitment to religious liberty ever since their earliest struggles.
The recent decade has witnessed an increase in a commitment to religious freedom, though most often to the conservative tune of refusing full assimilation to a culture becoming more accepting of LGBT rights.
There have been progressive moments from the LDS leadership. After Trump first proposed a Muslim ban over a year ago, the Mormon Newsroom released a statement that, though silent on the particular prompt, emphasized the religious rights of all denominations. At a general conference held in April, Linda K. Burton, the leader of the faith’s women’s group dedicated her address to the importance of helping refugees.
More broadly, the LDS Church has often spoken out in favor of more charitable approaches to all immigration policies using a vibrant voice and even prophetic opposition.
Yet after Trump was sworn in, and the Tabernacle Choir feted the occasion, both the LDS Church’s leaders and its newsroom has been devastatingly silent concerning these atrocious policies. Perhaps worried that direct opposition to the sitting executive branch might inaugurate negative repercussions, leaders seems to be in favor of a subtler approach.
But anything short of a courageous and bold declaration in the face of religious tyranny would be a betrayal of Mormons’ pioneer and prophetic legacy. If the Mormon faith remains committed to speaking out on moral issues, a right on which they have long insisted, this is its pressing moment.
If they choose to take up the prophetic mantle of protest, they can draw on an existing blueprint. In response to the immigration ban in 1879, the LDS Church-owned Deseret News responded that “it is absurd to suppose” any government would “undertake to establish an inquisition for the purpose of determining the religious faith of all intending emigrants from its shores.” It was further absurd to “assume that all ‘Mormons’ who emigrate to Utah intend to break the laws of the United States.”
Even in their blatant opposition to American monogamy laws at the times, Mormons recognized a constitutional and ethical breach when they saw one. In their commitment to honor the rights of religious liberty, especially their rights, they were willing to denounce executive actions.
The modern Mormon community must be as quick and vociferous to denounce similar infringements on others’ religious beliefs. Anything less would prove our commitment to religious liberty shallow.
Benjamin E. Park received his doctorate in history from the University of Cambridge and is an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @BenjaminEPark.
Editor’s note: the headline for this piece was updated after the LDS Church issued a statement after this column was published.