Mr. Smoot Goes to Washington : The Politics of American Religious Identity, 1900-1920
University of Chicago
Between 1904 and 1907, the U.S. Senate held an investigative hearing to determine whether the recently elected senator from Utah was fit to retain his seat. Instigated by a protest from the Salt Lake Ministerial Association and supported by a wide array of Protestant social reform groups, the hearing was ostensibly to determine whether Reed Smoot as an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly called “Mormon”) was fit to retain the seat to which he had been elected. In actual fact, the hearing was a trial of the L.D.S. Church itself and provided the occasion for the country—formally through its elected representatives and on a more immediate level through the daily press and citizen petitions—to reconsider the role of religion in the new century.
The Smoot hearing constituted a definitive event in the history of America's continuing attempt to guarantee “free exercise religion.” Although the specific conflict occurred over Mormonism, the Smoot hearing has broader significance for understanding America's use of law to define denominational status and the effect of law and politics on the religious landscape of the twentieth century. The Smoot hearing illuminates how radical, religious otherness was finally circumscribed within the protections of constitutional law or, in political terms, the conditions on which denominational citizenship was extended to the margins of American religion. Necessarily, with the shifting of the margins, the center was repositioned as well, and Protestant political and cultural dominance was diluted. The Protestant churches became what we now take for granted: merely another expression among several, equally valid varieties of American religious experience.
Ultimately, the goals of this project are threefold: first, to contribute to the historiography of America's continuing effort to define the constitutional right to “free exercise” in an increasingly diverse culture; second, to integrate the narrative of the Protestant and Mormon experience in twentieth-century America; and, finally, to illuminate religious strategies for change that preserve religious identity in a pluralistic society.