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Vote LDS 

Republicans declare good Mormons can’t vote Democrat. LDS leaders say otherwise, but will their flock take heed?

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{::NOAD::}If there’s one thing Mormons are known for, it’s loyalty. No other major sect is more strongly identified with the seriousness its general membership displays in practicing religious devotion.

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About the AuthorAlexander Nibley was born and raised in Provo. Some of his earliest memories are of people asking him, “Are you as smart as your father?”n n

The father in question, Hugh Nibley, is a man people seek out for answers about Mormonism. But Alex explains that answers were not always easy to get from his scholarly father. “I don’t think he ever gave me a straight answer to a question the whole time I was growing up. Most often, he’d refer me to some book where I could look up the answer. That didn’t help much, because the books were usually written in dead languages anyway.”


The younger Nibley went on to graduate from the University of Utah in mass communication, and later received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the American Conservatory Theatre. He moved back to Utah last spring after several years in Guam and California.


“Although I’ve lived in several places, Utah is the only place I really feel at home. Everywhere else I’ve been, I have felt like an anthropologist, observing the community and the culture as an outsider. Utah can be frustrating, but I love it. The feeling is strong and I can’t escape it: This is my land, my mountains, my people.”


Alexander Nibley is the former managing editor and a current contributing editor to Instrument Business Outlook , a publication that focuses on high technology and life sciences. He makes his living as a freelance writer, and his work has appeared in several national and international publications. He is currently compiling a collection of his father’s adventures as an intelligence sergeant during World War II. He is also currently serving as the press secretary to Scott Howell’s campaign for the U.S. Senate.


But at times, from the way the Mormon membership behaves in the political arena, you have to wonder: They are undoubtedly fierce in their loyalty, but to what?

The question arises because the Mormons, while professing devout loyalty to their leadership, persist in ignoring their leaders’ counsel on political matters. Every election year the church leaders issue statements making it clear that the church is non-partisan. And every election year the membership in Utah nod at each other with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge, and preach among themselves an entirely different message than the one their leaders gave them.

The message they are spreading is that “Republican” equals “righteous,” and any true member of the church is also a member of the Grand Old Party. The trend goes well beyond mere voting practices. Mormons with the temerity to take their leaders’ admonitions at face value and actually become active in the Democratic Party often find their loyalty and worthiness as Mormons called into question, or worse.

I remember well when I canvassed the area around BYU for the McGovern presidential campaign in 1972. The resistance I encountered was often derisive, hostile and contemptuous. I compare that to when I represented the LDS church as a missionary in Japan. In my training I was warned that I would find the Japanese a stubborn people on the subject of religion, and was cautioned not to expect open minds. In practice I found Japanese Buddhists were much more open to hearing about Mormonism than the good people of Provo were to considering whether Richard Nixon should be replaced. I think I made more converts in Japan than in Provo.

Even though my father is a well-known Mormon figure who has frequently been a key defender of the church in its intellectual battles, my parents have had their church loyalty—and sometimes their sanity—questioned when people found out they were Democrats. The standard reaction to the revelation, delivered with slack-jawed amazement, is, “But how is that possible?”

I don’t think this anti-Democrat attitude, which ranges from mild prejudice to outright persecution, comes from the church leadership. I have had the opportunity to meet many of the general authorities. On the whole I have found them to be open, reasonable and pragmatic—devout but realistic men who understand the importance of listening to all sides of a question and who realize that a diversity of viewpoints makes an organization stronger. It’s not the LDS leaders I worry about. It’s the zealous counselors in elders quorums who so often get the bright idea of going an extra mile or two in God’s service and doing more—often way more—than the church ever asked or wanted them to do.

The church has a long history of being embarrassed by loyal zealots with more passion than sense. Even Jesus had trouble keeping his followers in line. When Peter, the ultimate loyalist, lopped an ear off the high priest’s servant in the Garden of Gethsemene, Jesus healed the ear and explained to Peter that, sincere motives notwithstanding, he was not doing his Lord’s will.

Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, warned that the members of the church tend to have “zeal for the gospel, but not according to knowledge.” He was well-justified in his statement considering that many of the worst threats the church faced in its early days came less from persecution from the outside than from overzealous factions on the inside.

And the trend continued into the 20th century. In 1945 a Unitarian minister wrote to then-president of the LDS church, George Albert Smith, concerned about an LDS pamphlet he had read that stated, “He [Lucifer] wins a great victory when he can get members of the church to speak against their leaders and to ‘do their own thinking.’ When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done.”

In this case, once again, the zealots hectoring others to listen to the leaders had failed to listen themselves. Smith wrote back apologizing for the pamphlet, saying that the leadership of the church had mistakenly allowed it to be published uncensored. Smith said, “Not a few members of the church have been upset in their feelings and the general authorities have been embarrassed [by the pamphlet].”

The ironic thing here, of course, is that zealous Mormons, despite their claims of loyal obedience, do not follow the directives of their leaders if those directives should happen to go contrary to their own prejudices. A lot of people have said the church leaders have too much influence over politics in Utah, but from what I can see, if Gordon B. Hinckley disagrees with Rush Limbaugh, the ditto-heads prevail.

The church rarely takes stands on political issues. But when it has, LDS leaders have not always been well-sustained by the membership. Does anyone remember when the first presidency, under the leadership of President Spencer W. Kimball, issued its statement on the MX missile project that was proposed to be built in the West Desert of Utah? The sexy prospect of playing host to a real live doomsday system—along with all the pork it would bring—was much more convincing to the Mormons than their prophet, seer and revelator in that instance. Utah’s (Mormon) congressmen favored basing the MX in Utah. The First Presidency issued a second statement with no more impact. By the time LDS leaders issued a third statement against the MX, a grassroots campaign had increased publicity about the real horrors of the MX. Finally, in the face of overwhelming opposition, three of the four members of Utah’s congressional delegation reluctantly changed their positions.

This does not bespeak an organization whose every moral statement is immediately translated into policy by Mormon politicians.

There is a similar lack of following on social issues that aren’t popular. In General Conference in 1978, LDS President Kimball quoted one of his favorite children’s songs that pleaded, “Don’t kill the little birds that sing on bush and tree?” He begged the members to refrain from killing God’s creatures for fun, and quoted another prophet of the LDS church, Joseph F. Smith, who said, “I never could see why a man should be imbued with a blood-thirsty desire to kill and destroy animal life. I have known men—and they still exist among us—who enjoy what is to them the ‘sport’ of hunting birds and slaying them by the hundreds. I think it is wicked for men to thirst in their souls to kill almost everything which possesses animal life. It is wrong, and I have been surprised at prominent men whom I have seen whose very souls seemed to be athirst for the shedding of animal blood.”

Recent efforts at gun control by the church have met with no more success, as Utahns soundly defeated a measure, backed by the church, to outlaw guns in places of worship. Here, the latter-day prophets have been superseded. Charlton Heston isn’t a prophet of God, but he plays one on TV. Ordained by Hollywood, he has come down from the mountain as Moses himself, not with tables of stone, but with a musket clenched in his defiant fist to overrule the Mormon prophets, grant absolution and give the benediction of the National Rifle Association to what presidents Kimball and Smith called “wicked slaughter.” Do the Mormons follow their leaders on social issues? Certainly not when it threatens their guns. The prophets’ pleas had all the impact of a BB gun on a charging elephant.

Nowhere is the division between church policy and the politics of church members more glaring than on that most volatile of issues, abortion. The LDS church’s stand has been clear since 1972 when it issued a statement from the First Presidency saying that the church opposes abortion “except in the rare cases where, in the opinion of competent medical counsel, the life or good health of the mother is seriously endangered or where the pregnancy was caused by rape and produces serious emotional trauma in the mother.”

In this case, the brethren aren’t righteous enough for Utah politicians. Any Democrat who declares a position in line with the church doctrine is immediately branded a pro-choice baby-killer. The standard Utah Republican panders to the extreme right and takes a position that disallows the health of the mother as a justification for an abortion. This actually outlaws the church’s position and makes faithful Latter-day Saints criminals for following their leaders’ teachings. Freedom of religion is a small price to pay when it means you can make speeches with graphic accounts of killing fetuses and pin the blame on Democrats.

I was living on Guam when that territory passed America’s most stringent anti-abortion law ever. It made it a crime for anyone counseling a woman, including doctors and clergy, even to discuss the possibility of abortion. LDS members got up in church and bore testimony to the law’s divine inspiration without realizing that it meant their branch president could go to jail for following the instructions in the General Priesthood Handbook. Luckily for church leaders on this island where incest and rape are rampant, the law was quickly ruled unconstitutional.

This type of “zeal without knowledge” is what ultimately leads to violent crusades, holy wars, inquisitions and the most heinous crimes in the name of God. This is the fervor that leads people to destroy villages in order to “save” them, and to deny constitutional rights in the name of protecting the Constitution.

In 1977, Relief Society members turned out in force at women’s conferences across the country that were considering the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. By using their church organizational network, the sisters were able to disrupt the conferences to the extent that it caused a national scandal in which the LDS church was accused of purposely making a mockery of the meetings. The Relief Society presidency had to write a letter to clarify that the members’ tactics of implying or openly claiming church support for their activities were not sanctioned by the church. Relief Society President Barbara Smith commented that “the Relief Society had been used by the far right.”

There are a lot of examples of how the members of the church have hurt the interests of the church by too much zeal. At the top of the list would have to be the Mountain Meadow Massacre. Faithful members of the LDS church demonstrated their devotion to their savior by aiming guns at the heads of unarmed children and shattering their skulls for His glory. More than a century later, their contribution to Mormon history remains a bloody stain the church would like to forget.

And the pattern of zealous embarrassment continues unabated today. Marlin Jensen, a member of the church’s First Quorum of Seventy and an official church spokesman, gave an extended and very frank interview on the subject of politics to The Salt Lake Tribune in 1998. According to Elder Jensen, the leaders of the church are very worried about the lack of political balance, especially in Utah.

“The Democratic Party has in the last 20 years waned to the point where it really is almost not a factor in our political life right now. And I think there is a feeling [among the leadership of the church] that that is not healthy at all—that as a state we suffer in different ways. … There is a feeling that even nationally, as a church, it’s not in our best interest to be known as a one-party church. … [Among the leadership of the church there is] regret … about the decline of the Democratic Party and the notion that may prevail in some areas that you can’t be a good Mormon and a good Democrat at the same time. … I think it would be a very healthy thing for the church—particularly the Utah church—if that notion could be obliterated.”

Can the church make its non-partisan position any clearer? Yet the winking and nudging continues as it has in past years when the church has repeated its non-partisan disclaimer. The capacity of Utah Mormons to ignore their leaders on subjects they prefer not to hear about remains extraordinarily resilient.

Latter-day Saints claim the Book of Mormon is a guide to help the modern church avoid ancient errors. And what are the lessons of the book? One of its central themes is the conflict between open, representative democracy vs. various forms of oligarchy and despotism. Time after time the people in the Book of Mormon are warned by their religious leaders that democracy is the right way to govern. But time after time they plead and plot to set up governments that favor big money special interests and end up bringing loads of trouble for the people.

Is there a message here for the Latter-day Saints? Utah now has a state government in which the most important legislative decisions are made in caucus behind closed doors without the free and open debate democracy craves. Legislation is then rubber-stamped by a party so dominant that it has become like the Borg of Star Trek fame that warns all who dare oppose it, “Resistance is futile.” Just as in the Book of Mormon, open democracy has been allowed to wither away in Utah in favor of an easier way that requires less discussion, less thinking, less compromise, less responsibility on the individual voter, and less real, tough decision-making. In essence, less exercise of free agency.

Republican leaders claim that the reason the Mormons have forsaken the Democratic Party is because the party has forsaken them by taking stands contradictory with Mormon thinking on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. But as Elder Jensen points out, neither party is totally in line with LDS church doctrine, nor totally opposed to it. There is no partisan monopoly on either virtue or vice.

It is easy to find many points where Republican policies have been widely at variance with the moral teachings of the Mormon church. But there is clearly an unwillingness among Mormons to give the same respect to their brethren who are morally turned off by the Republican Party and are drawn to the Democratic Party not in spite of their Mormonism, but actually because of it.

I know many people, including my parents, whose Mormonism drives them to be Democrats. They believe the admonitions of King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon when he says we have a moral responsibility to do all we can to help those in poverty. They can’t reconcile Benjamin’s teachings with Republican hostility toward programs designed to aid the poor.

When they read in the Doctrine and Covenants, “he that is idle shall not eat the bread nor wear the garment of the laborer,” they cannot square the scripture with Republican plans to cut capital gains and estate taxes for the country-club set and transfer their tax burden onto middle-class workers. They believe strongly that God has given them a stewardship to protect the land, and they are deeply disturbed by the prevailing Republican attitude that the earth was given to us for development opportunities to make money. On these and many other points, Mormon doctrine is the fuel that feeds these Latter-day Saints’ enthusiasm for the Democratic Party.

Many Mormon Republicans may be sincere and thoughtful in their politics, but there are also many in the church who feel pressured and intimidated into accepting a political stance with which they are not comfortable. Many Mormons may feel a secret affinity for the Democratic Party or for candidates or policies the party promotes, but feel too intimidated to be vocal in their support or even to vote their consciences in private. While this is clearly against the teaching of the church, it is a fact of life in Utah. The false doctrine of “The True and Everlasting Party” has become so firmly embedded in the thinking of Utah Mormons that any Republican on any ticket—even an obvious lightweight or a profane buffoon—has an inherent advantage in an election over a Democrat with brilliant credentials that may even include a sterling record of Mormon church service.

Surely one of the reasons the Republican Party in Utah is currently so wracked with internal fighting is that they are so confident of their dominance that the Democrats pose no threat to them, and they feel free to fight amongst themselves. Why else would any party boo a popular governor and a powerful senator from their own party, as happened this year in the Utah Republican state convention? This is a sign of the arrogant hubris that comes when you know the majority of the state will automatically vote a straight Republican ticket without even looking at the other side of the ballot. In examining the loyalty of Mormons, the question is no longer, “Can you be a faithful Mormon and a Democrat?” Instead, the question now is, “Can you be a faithful Mormon and tolerate a one-party state?”

But like the Nephites in their scriptures, many Utah Mormons disregard the counsel of their leadership, abdicate their responsibilities as thinking, concerned citizens of a democracy, and turn their governance over to a one-party oligarchy. Those who blame the LDS church for this are wrong. The church has stated often and clearly that it backs no party and wants political balance among the saints, though many of its members in Utah pay no heed.

It reminds me of something a frustrated Brigham Young once said about the flock he was leading: “I have seen months and months, in this city, when I could have wept like a whipped child to see the awful stupidity of the people.”

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About The Author

Alexander Nibley

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