Throughout the 19th century, the big issue with regard to Mormons in politics was their effort to continue the practice of polygamy. After the 1887 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that polygamy could not be justified under the First Amendment's "freedom of religion" clause, the federal government forced the Saints to give up their peculiar marriage practice, and the president of the LDS church issued a "Manifesto" withdrawing the church's sanctioning of plural marriage. As a result, Utah was finally granted statehood in 1896.
In 1902, apostle Reed Smoot was elected to the U.S. Senate and from 1904 through 1907, Smoot and the LDS church were investigated in a major Senate hearing that was as publicly visible at that time as were the Teapot Dome or the Watergate scandal. The outcome of this inquisition was favorable, and Smoot went on to become one of the country's most powerful U.S. senators during the first half of the 20th century.
The LDS church gave up its overt pretensions as a powerful political force and, in the general pattern of religion in America, it worked behind the scenes to support political candidates and causes that affected families. Curiously, although its Word of Wisdom prohibits the consumption of alcohol, the LDS church never officially supported Prohibition.
In the second half of the 20th century, increasing numbers of Latter-day Saints emerged as political, financial, and cultural leaders. Ezra Taft Benson was secretary of agriculture in the Eisenhower administration. The Marriott family became prominent in the hotel arena. George Romney, who served as governor of Michigan, ran for president; his son Mitt was governor of Massachusetts and is running for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Other highly visible figures include Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Robert Bennett (R-Utah), as well as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.); former NASA administrator James C. Fletcher; and Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt. In none of these cases has the issue of their Mormonism figured large in their careers.
While former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is considered a serious contender for the 2008 Republican nomination for president, several recent polls show that 25 to 43 percent of voters say they would not vote for a Mormon for president. Only 58 percent of respondents in a February 2007 Gallup poll said they could "comfortably" vote for a Mormon, as compared to 84 percent for an African American and 78 percent for a woman.
Some reasons cited for Americans' reservations are: the perception that the church is secretive and authoritarian; the fear that a Mormon president would somehow be subject to church leaders in Salt Lake City; and the belief, particularly among evangelical Christians, that the Mormon church is a cult.
For some recent analysis on Mormons and politics read The Presidency's Mormon Moment, in which Newsweek's Ken Woodward writes about Americans' distrust of Mormons because of their "clannishness" and excessive secrecy and Americans' view of the religion as "a church with the soul of a corporation." In The Big Test (subscription required), Damon Linker writes in The New Republic about Mormons' patriotism and engagement with politics and how it links back to their theology, and Mormon historian Richard Bushman responds (subscription required).
Although 80 to 90 percent of Mormons voted for Republican presidential candidates in the last few elections -- and several prominent Mormons, including the prophet Joseph Smith himself, have run for U.S. president -- the church itself is institutionally neutral.
The church states on its Web site: "The church does not endorse political parties or candidates, nor does it permit the use of its buildings for political purposes. The church does not participate in politics unless there is a moral question at issue, in which case the church will often speak out."
Two such issues have been the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) battle, in which some scholars say the church played a crucial role in killing the amendment, and more recently, gay marriage, which the church has mounted a major campaign to stop. Latter-day Saints received direction from Mormon leaders in fighting the passage of gay marriage legislation in California.
However, the church doesn't exactly line up on all conservative social positions. It is officially pro-life, but it permits abortion when the life or health of the mother is at stake; when the child is unlikely to survive due to serious birth defects; or in cases of rape or incest. It does not accept government funds, and thus has not participated in President Bush's faith-based initiative program.
Political scientists David Campbell of Notre Dame and J. Quin Monson of Brigham Young University have profiled (PDF file) the voting behavior of Mormons and describe them as "dry kindling. … Like kindling they can be lit, ignited by the spark of explicit direction from their church leaders. However, much of the flammability is due to the relative infrequency with which Mormons are mobilized by their church leaders."