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Latter-day Saints in American Political Culture

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In this Q&A we ask Spencer McBride, Brent M. Rogers, and Keith A. Erekson three questions about Contingent Citizens: Shifting Perceptions of Latter-day Saints in American Political Culture and the ways Americans have perceived the Latter-day Saints since the 1830s.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

One of the many interesting stories found in this book is of Lieutenant Washington Bartlett writing from his ship anchored in the San Francisco Bay about the westward movement of Latter-day Saints in 1846. He compared the religious group to a “swarm of Locusts” not because of its religious beliefs but because he feared its very real political, military, and diplomatic power. Such a statement reveals a constant in the Mormon American political experience. Americans claim to express concern not about religion but about other forms of power. It is rhetoric that continues in political discourse and culture today and begs a question worth considering: when it comes to religion and politics can we delineate between politics and prejudice?

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

The collective work of pulling together Contingent Citizens revealed many fascinating insights—from the political subtext for calling someone “superstitious” in the 1830s to an organized effort to counter-proselytize Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City in the 1970s. Before we began, we did not anticipate how fully pliable the Mormon image was for projecting Americans’ fears and uncertainties about what it means to be religious and to be American.

3. How do you wish you could change the field of history?

Our book highlights the way that Mormon history and American political history inform each other. We think that the essays really demonstrate the importance of not isolating historical subfields. By removing subfields from the metaphorical silos that we sometimes place them in we see connections we might have missed. In many ways, specialization has served the historical profession well, but it comes with the risk of missing broader trends and themes.

*Featured photo by Julia Tebbs on Unsplash.

Spencer W. McBride is Historian and Documentary Editor at the Joseph Smith Papers, and is author of Pulpit and Nation. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerWMcBride.

Brent M. Rogers is Associate Managing Historian with the Joseph Smith Papers, and the author of Unpopular Sovereignty. Follow him on Twitter @brentrogers2121.

Keith A. Erekson is an author, teacher, and public historian who serves as director of the Church History Library. Follow him @KeithAErekson.

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