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 firstname.lastname@example.org.