One of the oft-expressed late 19th century/early 20th century charges about the Church’s “un-American” nature centered on the Church’s involvement in politics. When the man who spoke for God, the argument went, directed you to vote in a given way, the pressure to protect your eternal salvation was too great for mortal man to resist.
My standard answer is that nobody claiming such a thing could possibly know much about Mormons or Mormon history. If we did everything we were told to do, why do we have to be told the same things at every General Conference? Why don’t we have a higher volume of fast offerings, perfect home teaching numbers, and Sunday lessons that always follow the manual?
But it is true that in times past church leaders seldom hesitated to express their political opinions, and maybe sometimes they really did have an effect on political outcomes.
Witness the U.S. presidential election of 1912.
That campaign pitted incumbent William Howard Taft (Republican) against former president Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive/“Bull Moose” third party, after he failed to gain the Republican nomination) and future president Woodrow Wilson (Democrat). Most Mormons were then Democrats, largely because the Republican Party had aggressively prosecuted polygamists, disfranchised all Mormon women and most Mormon men, and confiscated most of the Church’s property after dissolving the Church as a legal entity in the 19th century. Most Mormons would remain Democrats for another generation, before heading down the path that makes Utah the reddest state in the Union today.
LDS president Joseph F. Smith and other leading Mormons were, however, Republicans – chiefly, I think, because of their views on business, although that may be too simplistic a conclusion. Joseph F. Smith was also editor of The Improvement Era, and as editor he published an editorial or two for every issue. His editorial for October, 1912, was this:
The Presidential Election
The forthcoming presidential election is one of profound importance, and opens to the student a wide field for the study of applied political economy, as well as for leading social questions that are before the nation to be solved.
No reasonable citizen who has investigated the political situation, with a view to learning the true status of the claims set forth by the various political parties, can in any way justly find fault with the present administration. President William H. Taft has met the just needs of the people and the economic demands of the country with steadfastness and wisdom. In the treatment of the great questions that have come before the nation, he has risen to the occasion and applied such conservative legal remedies as have won him true admiration from patriotic citizens of all parties.
The extremely delicate situation with Mexico has been handled by him in a way to establish confidence in his ability, and notwithstanding the criticism of his action, in this matter and in that of the Central American republics, time will doubtless prove that his policy is best. Most people do not understand what intervention in Mexico would have meant when it was most advocated. American colonists, in large numbers, were distributed over various scattered sections of that country, and had not the situation been handled as carefully as it was, war would inevitably have been the result. War would have meant the destruction of railways and perhaps the massacre of many Americans in the interior. It would take a long time for soldiers to reach points where they could be a protection to the colonists, in view of the great stretches of cruel desert which would have to be traversed. The recognition of the rebels, besides making war almost inevitable, would have given them a legal standing. At present they are looked upon as mere citizens in arms, and the Mexican government may be held responsible for their depredations, which might not have been the case, had they been recognized. Everything considered, the administration has dealt properly with this very delicate situation. The colonists who were driven out were well treated by our government, being provided in their extremity in great kindness, with food and means.
The only charge of any consequence that the opponents of President Taft bring against him is that he has been and is a tool of the “Interests,” which means, doubtless, that he unduly favors “big business,” or trusts. His administration has proved the contrary, and the careful student will find that he has done as much to regulate the trusts as was ever done by any other incumbent of the presidential chair, and he has done it legally. He believes strictly in the judicial application of the law in these cases, and as firmly as any one in the need of just and fair laws to deal with the important question. It is a perplexing problem, which not even the experts know just how to handle, and which can not be solved by a mere change of presidents. President Taft believes in finding out what is necessary, and then in applying the law as a remedy without resort to unconstitutional means, to lawlessness and anarchy. This has been his policy, and what he has accomplished has been effective without being revolutionary and illegal.
At no time has the country been more prosperous than now, and as far as politics may affect prosperity, the people of the country have no occasion to complain at the administration, on his matter. So that, on the whole, whatever may happen through the elections in November, whatever may be the final outcome of the people’s choice, it is clear that President William H. Taft has made a good president, and his administration has been a success. Should the people call him once again to the presidential chair, it is not likely that they will regret it, but, on the contrary, will find their action wise, sensible and sound.
– Joseph F. Smith
Wilson, the Democrat, was elected to the first of his two terms.
Taft, the Republican, won Democratic Utah’s electoral vote – one of only two states (the other being Vermont) to go for Taft.