Early Mormons held firmly to the belief that the end of the world was imminent, which led to their emphasis on "gathering." Those who wanted to avoid the perilous calamities that would accompany the end times were invited to join the Church and gather with other Mormons in one of the various cities in which Mormons settled. They believed that Christ would very soon return to the earth, destroy the wicked, and reign over the righteous on earth for a period of 1,000 years. In these early years, Mormons sought to erect an independent society called Zion that governed itself. By the 1840s, the millenarian fervor had subsided slightly, and from that point on, Mormons tended to work through the democratic process to effect change that comported with their moral beliefs.
In 1844, Joseph Smith ran for president of the United States, but his campaign was cut short by his murder in June of that year. Smith espoused a "theodemocracy" in which he would lead the nation according to the will of God, which he would know through revelation, while maintaining most of the rights that then existed for American citizens. After the Mormons moved to Utah in 1847, Brigham Young served as territorial governor, but was eventually replaced because the federal government suspected that a Mormon "rebellion" was in the offing. While Mormons dominated Utah politics and society, they were unable to control it completely.
For most of its history, the Church has had to reconcile its own beliefs and moral standards with the reality that these beliefs were not shared by the majority of persons around them. As a result, the Church developed an approach to social issues that focused on living as examples to those around them in their individual communities and on selective social action in regard to morally informed issues such as pornography, alcohol, and marriage. In addition Mormons are regularly enjoined to vote and encouraged to participate in politics as candidates and activists.
Individual Mormons have played an active role in American politics since the early 20th century. Apostle Ezra Taft Benson served as Secretary of Agriculture under President Eisenhower, and many Mormons have served as U.S. Senators and members of Congress, including the current Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid. Although Reid is a Democrat, the vast majority of Mormons who have served as nationally-elected representatives have been Republicans and have shaped public policy in accordance with the Church's socially conservative teachings.
Each fall in the United States the Church issues a statement to be read in all Mormon congregations that affirms the Church's position of political neutrality and encourages Mormons to become informed citizens and to exercise their voting rights. Despite the Church's generally neutral stance in politics, Mormons typically are very conservative socially, and the Church has reserved the right to speak openly about what leaders call "moral issues." Laws limiting gambling, legislation involving the operation of bars, and political campaigns against same-sex marriages have all drawn considerable attention and financial backing from Church leaders in recent years.
While the Church makes practical efforts to preserve what it views as traditional moral values in society, Mormon theological discourse maintains a millenarian strain and holds that the "world" will continue in moral decline. Christ's Second Coming, which is currently thought to be near but not immediately at hand, will be the only force powerful enough to cleanse the world of wickedness and establish the laws of God as a legal and political standard.
1. How has millennialism shaped Mormonism's vision for society?
2. How do Mormons engage in social justice?
3. What role do Mormons play in shaping society through politics?