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Home / Articles / Opinion / Editorial /  Liberals & Mormons
Editorial

Liberals & Mormons

The Democratic Party is “the natural home” of Mormons.

By John Rasmuson
Posted // March 3,2010 - Where are good places around Salt Lake City to take out-of-town visitors? The Spiral Jetty and Welfare Square, a knowledgeable friend assured me.

So, a while back, I took houseguests to the latter, the engine room of Mormon philanthropy. A polite missionary escorted us around the complex, and at the end of the tour invited us to watch a video. It turned out to be a predictable, slick, institutional promotion until Ted Kennedy took center stage. I was stunned. Ted Kennedy! The avatar of tax-and-spend, bleeding-heart, soft-on-crime, welfare-queen, union-stooge liberalism who has been vilified by Republicans for as long as I can remember. And there he was holding forth on an LDS Church-produced video in Welfare Square.

Not long after, another well-known liberal, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, gave his I-am-a-Democrat-because-I-am-a-Mormon speech at BYU. And then, in Richard L. Bushman’s biography of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, I read that the Democratic Party was “the natural home” of Mormons.

The more I thought about the history and traditions of the church, the more it seemed to me that Mormons ought to be drawn to the left, not the right, and to the politics of Kennedy and Reid, not Orrin Hatch and Tom DeLay. That they haven’t vexes me.

Smith intended to run for president in the 1844 election. The suggestion that he was a closet Democrat raises the hackles of my Mormon friends. Joe Smith was no Ted Kennedy, they sputter. And that’s true, to a certain extent. Nevertheless, the Bushman book paints a portrait of Smith in warm liberal hues. The prophet’s views on the role of the federal government, immigration, wealth redistribution, slavery, prisons and care for the needy were certainly progressive. He also favored establishment of a national bank and “the fostering care of government” it would provide to the economy.

It is fair to say that most of Smith’s followers agreed with him. But nowadays, just one in 10 Mormons describes him- or herself as liberal, according to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life. Sixty percent are conservatives.

What they mean by “liberal” or “conservative” is anyone’s guess. Most of us are like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass. “When I use a word,” he lectured Alice, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” So, I choose to think of conservatives as favoring tradition: a small federal government, a balanced budget and a muscular defense establishment. Liberals tend to see government as the solution for social and environmental problems and the safety net for the disadvantaged.

My own brand of liberalism is a prism for Mormon culture. I credit Mormons for Utah’s best-in-the-nation standing in volunteerism. I take heart that in this solipsistic age, young Mormons become citizens of the world for two years, sometimes mastering a foreign language in the process. I applaud the efforts of the LDS in helping others, be they Salt Lake City indigents or disaster victims in Indonesia.

However, irony lurks in the Pew data.

For example, 61 percent of Mormons have attended college, but only 22 percent accept the theory of evolution. When it comes to shrinking the federal government, 56 percent are in favor, but about the same percentage believes the government should do more to protect “morality.”

Fifty-five percent say strict environmental laws are worth the associated costs.

Most Mormons (51 percent) think military strength and engagement in world affairs are important, yet Utah has one of the lowest Army enlistment rates in the nation.

Another irony is evident in Utah’s crowded, underfunded classrooms. In October 2009’s General Conference, Dieter Uchtdorf, Second Counselor in the first presidency, said that “education is not merely a good idea, it is a commandment.” That said, it is apparent that many haven’t got the word. Utah’s class sizes and per-student expenditure bode ill for this generation of Mormon kids.

The most intriguing data in the Pew study correlated church attendance and politics. Of those Mormons who attended church every Sunday, 73 percent were Republicans. That percentage dropped by a whopping 34 points for those who attended church less frequently. The same disparity was registered on the issue of a less-intrusive federal government: 61 percent of weekly attendees agreed versus 37 percent of the brethren who played golf occasionally on Sunday. A cynic might conclude there has been more to priesthood meetings than just the lessons in the manual.

I think not. However, my own family history includes an anecdote from 1956, when a bishop in Parley’s Stake took to the pulpit to encourage the congregation to vote for Republican Wallace F. Bennett. My uncle rose to his feet in protest and is remembered in family lore for his principled, public stand.

A more likely explanation for Mormons’ Republican tilt is rooted in too much complacency, too many unread books, too many hours watching Fox News. It is worth noting that 48 percent of Mormons believe that churches should stay out of politics.

I am certainly not the first to question latter-day Mormons’ departure from their liberal tradition, but I may be the first to note the Kennedy imprimatur on the fundamental Mormon practice of helping the needy.

I do take it as a positive sign, an indication of a temperamental alignment between Mormondom and me. Can it be that beneath the moss-backed Republican hide beats the bleeding heart of a liberal? I hope so. I, for one, would welcome all Mormons back to the fold and to the ideals that shaped the iconic public lives of Kennedy and Smith.

Private Eye is off this week. Send Rasmuson feedback to comments@cityweekly.net.

 
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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // March 17,2010 at 21:50

I'm surprised you didn't mention Ezra Taft Benson. He's a big part of the right leaning shift in Mormon politics.

As a Mormon I can say, I wasn't a fan of his politics. I too think that Joseph Smith leaned in a more liberal direction than the current church.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // March 4,2010 at 14:13

You're confusing the gospel of Jesus Christ and Socialism (aka Liberalism). They are not the same. So, no, your assertion that Mormons should naturally gravitate towards "liberalism" is false. Most Republicans and Democrats are Progressives nowadays and Mormons would do well to steer away from the false philanthropy of Progressivism (IE. Collectivism) regardless of the party that advocates it, and stick to the true and natural philanthropy that the Savior preached. He never advocated [forced] charity which is what you get through the government. The problem is, most Americans, you included, don't realize there is a difference between church and state = free agency versus force. This is the root cause of all our political woes because the people, generally speaking, don't understand this critical difference. And you actually think there's really any substantive difference between Conservatives and Liberals? Well, it's really only a difference of degree not principle. They've both compromised with Socialism.

WWW.HINTON2010.COM

 

Posted // March 9,2010 at 11:59 - Well, there's nothing "to do" with me, frankly. We're on totally different wavelengths. I respect your commitment to a cause and your friend's willingness to throw his hat in the ring. That's as far as it goes. And I think I'm correct, judging from your fine photos, in assuming that you both are too young to know about the transiton of your church from liberal to conservative. Being from Southern Utah insulates you from that, as well, because rural Utah is a bastion, still, for conservative LDS theology, while your church leaders in Salt Lake City are preaching tolerance lately to even include (shudder!) gay people. And, Thomas, I was born in Price and raised in SLC with deep roots in South Eastern Utah. You boys are full of popular anti-government talking points, but a bit shy on life experience, it would seem. What are you guys, in your twenties?

 

Posted // March 9,2010 at 03:13 - Hmmmmmm, trying to decide if I want to get into this with you "Anonymous." I've had this conversation many times with people who sound like you. You seem like a smart person and I appreciate that you checked out my friend's site. What ta do, what ta do...... WWW.HINTON2010.COM

 

Posted // March 8,2010 at 16:15 - You know, Thomas, I should have figured this out from your rhetoric. Then, I used your link to your friend who's running for office and it all came clear. When you invoke "the Savior" and quote a bunch of guys who have been dead 300 years as the basis of your campaign to sell your political goods, you need to be aware that you already have two strikes against you. Using God and slave owners as a basis for modern political views is like driving a Model A at a NASCAR event. He doesn't have a chance in Hell to beat Jim Matheson, but I admire his commitment, armed with the Constitution under one arm and the Doctrine and Covenenants under the other.

 

Posted // March 4,2010 at 16:10 - Thomas, It's well-known in local history that the LDS Church was hijacked by conservatives years ago. And they set about making anyone who wasn't on board to feel unwelcome. I'll allow that it probably came from 50's fear of godless communism and a yearning to take charge of local society from a strict and moral standpoint. It's still happening. Think Gayle Ruzicka or Grandpa Buttars. If you aren't aware of that paradigm shift, then you are either too young to know about it or you weren't paying attention. Now, on to your negative use of the word "socialism." I'll keep it simple: Do we have Social Security? Do we have The Veterans Administration? Medicaid? Medicare? School tuition grants? Have you or any member of your family used Social Security, school grants, Veterans services, Medicare? Are you or they ready to denounce those services and stop using them immediately? Perhaps even pay the tainted funds back? If not, you are all evil SOCIALISTS! Boooowaaaa-hahahahahahahahahahah! Thomas, as a reality check, just ask yourself: When did socialism become such a dirty word? Answer: When Barack Obama took the White House. The evil is deep-seated.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // March 3,2010 at 14:17

Jon,

Your anecdote about the 1956 campaign lecture for Wallace Bennett is part of the beginning of the end of liberalism and the Mormon Church.

Growing up, I remember how saintly and loving David O McKay seemed. He said,“No man can sincerely resolve to apply to his daily life the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth without sensing a change in his own nature. The phrase, 'born again', has a deeper significance than many people attach to it. This changed feeling may be indescribable, but it is real.”

Sound like the modern-day Lord-of-the-Flies, Nazi frat-boys on our own Capitol Hill?

History has a story of how the rank and file members of the LDS Church were converted away from Democratic leanings to conservative Republicanisn.

It degenerated into John Birch associations, Cleon Skousen's rantings in the 60's and finally, in the mid-70's, the complete turnover to conservatism.

The LDS Church has gone from embracing liberlism for all the right reasons to embracing Sean Hannity for all the wrong reasons.

Nowadays, if you're Mormon and a Democrat, you're on the endangered species list for one of those tags.

 

Posted // March 4,2010 at 14:18 - The "rantings" of Cleon Skousen? Oh really, I'd love to hear how well you could "rant" about the Constitution and the proper role of government (as Skousen did) as opposed to tearing down those who stand up for freedom and liberty. And as I said in my post below, you actually think there's much difference between Conservatism (Republicans) and modern Liberalism (Democrats)? These distinctions are mainly just a red herring which distracts from mature political discussion and debate.

 

 
 
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