To continue with the international perspective I was asked to give, here is one post that opens the door to some political debate… I hope it will not deviate too much from the questions asked at the end!
Two items to set the perspective:
1) First, the vast majority of Mormon pioneers who came from Europe in the 19th century were people with leftist traits. Mostly workmen and craftsmen, dedicated to social justice, inspired by egalitarian dreams, they turned their back to an exploitative society. In Mormonism they found this galvanizing combination of religious conviction and communalist ideals (I said communalist, not communist). Letters and journals of the time testify to that outlook. Dirk Exalto, a Dutchman who converted to Mormonism in 1863, expressed it in these terms: “The lamentations of the workmen are crying out to God’s throne. The rich will moan and wail. But among the Saints in Utah is salvation. There equality reigns, there is love. There everyone is a workman!”
Perhaps the very colonization of the Mormon West, the United Order experiments and the Cooperative Mercantile Institutions, would not have been possible without this dedication to both religious and socialist principles – “socialist” in its original meaning of an organized society working for the common good of all. It laid the basis for explicit political action: “During the 1890s to the 1920s, the Utah Social Democratic Party, which became part of the Socialist Party of America in 1901, elected about 100 socialists to state offices in Utah. An estimated 40% of Utah Socialists were Mormon.” (Wordiq.com).
The reasons why the Mormon West, in a relatively short period, moved away from this leftist legacy and became culturally antithetical to a narrowly defined “socialism”, have been well documented, as well as the further shift to a presently strong rightist domination. Utah is now one of the most conservative, Republican states in the U.S. The principles of capitalism and of highly effective people ensure widely different levels of affluence. Are pioneer forefathers turning in their graves?
2) Second, we can safely say that at present in the International Church the majority of both longstanding members and more recent converts, inasmuch as they are ideologically engaged, are still more on the left in the political spectrum. This phenomenon has been documented in various studies (one of mine was published in BYU Studies). People on the right, clinging to their traditional values, patriotic and loyal to their own religious past, are not so likely to be converted to this outlandish Mormonism. People abroad who join the Church are often from working classes or from socially disadvantaged groups. And/Or they have personalities open to change and to new commitments. As I have experienced over the years, the more knowledgeable converts were often already committed to environmental issues, social justice, world citizenship and/or peace movements before joining the Church. After a time they start wondering why these topics seem to be lacking in Church magazines, manuals and conference talks.
It explains why converts from abroad visiting Utah or discovering its idiosyncrasies over the Internet, may be surprised, to put it mildly, to learn that their co-religionists on the Wasatch front are not only overwhelmingly Republican as such, but that quite a few advocate even stronger far-right ideas on certain issues. It clashes with these converts’ perception of the tolerant, peace-promoting, internationalistic dimension of Mormonism as they have accepted it. If they settle in Utah, many Mormons from abroad with such a leftist background, learn to seal their lips for they quickly realize that any reasonable discussion is impossible and that they will be ostracized when speaking out.
My focus of this post would be: what does this difference in political tendency mean for the relation between the heart of Mormondom in Utah (outspoken Republican and sometimes even ultra-conservative) and the rest of the Mormon world (even in all its heterogeneity, still leaning more on the left)? Inconsequential? Or does Utah’s present lack of political diversity represent a serious handicap, not only to Utah itself, but also to the rest of the Mormon world and to the image of the Church worldwide?
As Elder Marlin Jensen said a few years ago, with the apparent backing of the Church: “It’s not in our best interest to be known as a one-party church.” Indeed, not in Utah nor in the U.S. in general, and certainly not in the rest of the world. When the Church is perceived abroad as being part of (ultra) right-wing America, it is not helpful for missionary work, nor for the feeling of belonging of members abroad. It also becomes a stumbling block in the relation with foreign governments, leading to various restrictions for the Church. In the long run, when one looks at anti-American developments in the world, it could even become detrimental to the safety of non-American Mormons.