Stewardship and Politics

September 22, 2008 | 42 comments
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With elections coming up and my time as a guest blogger running out, I like to take up the topic of Mormonism and voting. First, what should we make of the many Mormons who seem completely disengaged in politics? I remember some polling data during one of the last election cycles from Utah that showed that Mormon women particularly had abysmal voting participation. Why is that? And even when members of the church show up to vote they often seem to have no clue about the issues/candidates. Unless voting is informed, it is guessing. Virtually every Mormon I know from the U.S. would extol the virtues of living in a free country, yet many Mormons take their stewardship of being a citizen so lightly.

Second, I want to say a few words about the church’s position of political neutrality. Each election cycle when the church leadership has its statement of political neutrality, I get the feeling that most people in the audience hear: “The church is neutral (wink, wink), but we sure hope you vote Republican.” So, should we take church’s stand of political neutrality as something more than an effort to protect its 501(c)(3) status? A few years back, Elder Marlin K. Jensen gave a frank interview to the Salt Lake Tribune. He told the Tribune that he was generally a Democrat and thought that it was important that Mormons understood that being good Mormon doesn’t mean you have to be a Republican. He didn’t go out and say, “Vote Democrat” either. Rather, he stressed that reasonable members of the church could and perhaps should differ when it comes to political philosophy. While this interview has almost disappeared from Mormon society’s memory and most Mormons I know never drifted from automatic pilot when voting, I think that it is important to remember his message: our elections deserve more attention, more thought, and more scrutiny.

If we really feel “blessed” to live in a free society, shouldn’t we show it?

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42 Responses to Stewardship and Politics

  1. lamonte on September 22, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Brigham – Thanks for this important reminder of our civic responsibilities, A very close friend and I have completely opposite opinions about politics. For years we had many reasonable discussions about the issues of the day. But I was a bit dismayed just a few years ago when he confided in me that he has actually never voted in an election. Suddenly my desire to consider his side of the issue lost its power.

    You said about Elder Jensen’s statement regarding participation in the political process, “…. this interview has almost disappeared from Mormon society’s memory.” But for those of us who most often find ourselves in the minority when it comes ot politics in the church, that interview has been emblazened on our brains.

    Thanks again for the gentle reminder.

  2. Julie M. Smith on September 22, 2008 at 11:21 am

    “they seem to have a clue about the issues/candidates”

    I’m thinking you left out a ‘not’?

    One thought: I think we are used to seeing church leaders who appear to us as non-hypocritical, non-self-aggrandizing, decent human beings who are doing their very best in their positions. Contrast that with _any_ candidate for office and no wonder Mormons think ICK and don’t want to get involved.

  3. chads on September 22, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Thanks for the reminder. I agree wholeheartedly with your call for more informed voting.

    Having said that, I may not vote this year.

    I have been troubled, conflicted, and unsettled with respect to politics lately.

    It seems to me (I certainly could be wrong!) that most involved in the political process are motivated by either tribal impulses (go, team, go!), or ideology, as opposed to informed issues or processes (think Iraq).

    There are only a few issues that I think I am truly informed about, and those issues are extremely complex. It boggles my mind to think that someone could actually think they have a firm enough grasp all issues (health care, global warming, Islamic extremism, immigration, etc.), that they could passionately support one candidate or another. I am convinced that the political process focus needs to be much more on the process than the stance on issues (not that the stance on issues is not important).

    We need leaders, I think, that can analyze data, seek advice from all sides, consider historical precedences, etc., as opposed to simply following polls, the party line, or strict ideology (in most cases, at least). And we need citizens that do more than simply get fired up at election time.

    There are a myriad of ways to get involved in civic affairs other than voting. Maybe we each need to ask ourselves “where can I make the most impact?” and spend your time and resources there (and it may NOT be spending the time needed to inform oneself about the issues enough to be an “informed voter”!)

  4. Mormon Paleo on September 22, 2008 at 11:44 am

    “First, what should we make of the many Mormons who seem completely disengaged in politics?”

    This is a wonderful question. I think that there are several reasons for this.

    One is that people seem busy enough with other things, and politics seems like a sidenote, or something optional, rather than a core and important duty. For many of us that are trying to be consistent in scripture reading, FHE, and temple attendance, for instance, or dealing with a health or family situation, how does politics fit in?

    Second, I think there is something to how political discussion is framed that appeals more to men, especially of the middle and upper classes. Changing this to appeal to a broader group can be difficult, but seems important to be able to change popular apathy.

    Thirdly, many members may understandably think that since the Church is politically neutral, and that since there are high-profile Mormon Democrats and Mormon Republicans alike, that their political beliefs (or lack thereof) really don’t matter all that much. Throw into that the variety of political beliefs, parties, and factions from overseas, and that, to some people, can underscore the idea that political activism really isn’t all that important. If it was that important, they may reason, God would tell me what to do (of course the idea that God always tells us what to do is a false doctrine).

    Fourth, I wonder whether Mormon political apathy is reflected in our society as a whole, or certain segments thereof, like inhabitants of the intermountain west, for instance.

    Fifth, for many, politics is a bore and during one’s leisure time, they’d rather be engaged with something else.

    Sixth, many people are just fed up with politics and politicians, and would rather avoid the mess than engage in it. We get enough jammed down our throats with the nighly news and radio and cable and internet pundits that we’re completely unmotivated to spend our own time and energy trying to figure it out.

  5. The Right Trousers on September 22, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Convince the Democrats to stop pandering to the radical elements in the abortion debate and I guarantee you we’d see more members voting Democrat. This has nothing to do with certain Saints being brainless – most of them feel they’re voting their conscience. To them, one party stands for moral values and strong families, and the other doesn’t. They don’t feel like they *need* to think that hard. (Please, nobody argue with *me* over this. I’m describing other people.)

    The Saints haven’t lost their will to engage in politics as much as the Democrats lost the Saints.

    In a homework assignment on game theory, I showed that it’s only rational to (unilaterally) decide to vote if your vote has a significant chance of changing the election outcome in your favor. (This doesn’t account for other motivations such as demonstrating the rising strength of your party.) The threshold depends on the cost of losing and the cost of voting. Guess how likely your vote is to change the outcome if you live in Utah? We’ll call it close to zero. Might this have something to do with low turnout? You betcha. We don’t compute expected utilities in our heads when making decisions, but we do something roughly like it.

    In other words, your second complaint very likely causes your first.

  6. The Right Trousers on September 22, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    FWIW, I would guess that in Utah, the average cost of voting for women is higher than the average cost of voting for men.

  7. Mark B. on September 22, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    I can understand the lack of interest in Utah–what difference, after all, does your one vote make in a one-party state? It’s the same way here in New York. If I didn’t bother to cast my vote, what difference would it make in my precinct where the Democrats always get 80% or more of the vote.

  8. Roland on September 22, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    One of the frustrating things in life is when a fellow church member of good character standing runs for local office against people of shady character values only to find that a number of potential voters within the ward are not registered to vote and don’t care enough to help out.

  9. The Right Trousers on September 22, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    The game theoretic analysis suggests some courses of action.

    1. Reduce the cost of voting. In Utah, focus on young mothers. The problem is that this alters the demographics of active voters. Some party or other won’t like it.

    Alternatively, raise the cost of *not* voting. The Church and others do this by making it a moral imperative or an issue of loyalty.

    2. Raise the cost of losing. If it’s high enough, an infinitesimal chance of changing the election outcome is enough. I can’t see a general strategy that does this. (Killing the loser, maybe? Okay, I can’t see a general *legal* strategy.) But this may partially explain why politicians demonize each other and each others’ policies all the time: to raise the perceived cost of losing.

    Having a decent candidate helps on this. Voter apathy happens when no outcomes look great – IOW the cost of losing is low.

    3. Get parties closer to parity. A voter’s chance of changing the election outcome is greatest where parties claim near equal proportions of the population. There’s no mechanistic change I can think of that does this fairly.

    Actually, chucking the electoral college would do it for presidential elections by increasing the state elections’ scope, bringing all of them to near parity.

    4. The analysis doesn’t cover everything – there are a lot of ways to work outside it.

    Make voting into a demonstration. (This requires a cause to demonstrate for.) In 2004, many red staters voted to keep Bush from winning the college without winning the popular vote. People routinely vote for losing parties to make a point. I myself will be voting for Google in the presidential election.

    Encourage strategic voting. This requires a third candidate. (Arrow’s Theorem doesn’t apply with only two.)

  10. Bro. Jones on September 22, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    #7 Indeed. This is why I voted for George W. Bush in 2000 when I lived in Illinois. I certainly did take an interest in the issues, but in Illinois, my presidential vote had no chance of changing the outcome. (Curse you, electoral college!) I can’t say 100% that I would’ve voted differently had I been in a swing state, but at least I would’ve felt invested in the process.

  11. at U of R on September 22, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    #9

    As someone familiar with game theory, it seems you’re relying on either very old voting models, or a mix of them you don’t quite explain. The things you say could be true, but don’t necessarily hold. Similarly with your recomendations, some of which would not be seriously considered by real political scientists, since several of them are impossible.

    Your invocation of Arrow’s theorem is non-obvious to me. How does that relate to decisions to vote or not? It’s about social choice theory and the possibility of having choices made under generally desirable conditions–and is essentially an argument for institutions that violate the mathematical principal of non-dictatorship…not really anything about whether or not strategic voting is possible, or how it might relate to decisions to vote.

  12. Adam Greenwood on September 22, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    Even informed voting is almost completely useless. There are other forms of civic involvement that matter a lot more. I still vote, of course. Because I inherited the dutifulness gene from my parents. Also because it lets me thumb my nose at the voting scolds.

  13. Tiffany on September 22, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    “First, what should we make of the many Mormons who seem completely disengaged in politics.”

    I think that is a pretty broad statement and one which you have not backed up with any evidence to support it.

    Most members I know are very actively involved in the voting process. Even when the odds are stacked against them.

    I don’t think voting or not voting is even related to religion, but rather is a question of inherited civic duty and a sense of personal responsibility.

  14. quin on September 22, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    I agree that voters would be more involved if their votes had more impact. I have lived in two different states where a particular party carries an overwhelming majority of the electoral votes, and the mentality is either “I agree with that party, so my vote isn’t needed to win” or “I don’t agree with that party, but since I don’t have 20,000 like minded friends, my vote won’t count at all”. Most of the Mormons I know understand the electoral college system very well and understand that as long as it exists, national elections will always reflect the views of “we the densely populated” rather than “we the people”.

  15. jjohnsen on September 22, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    In the area I live, you can usually divide people into three groups.

    Those that vote Republican without knowing the issues, because good Mormons vote Republican.

    Those that would vote Republican, but understand it isn’t necessary, because usually a drug-abusing, dog-kicking, child-beating person would get elected as long as they have an R next to their name.

    Those that would vote Democrat, but understand it isn’t necessary, because usually a drug-abusing, dog-kicking, child-beating person would get elected as long as they have an R next to their name.

    I’m Independent, but lean more left the older I get. I feel that same hopelessness as I hit the button next to a Democrat, but I feel it’s part of my civic duty, just like paying taxes to help bail out Wall Street. It’s pretty annoying. We had a guy in our ward run as a Democrat just because the Republican in the position was totally useless. He never had a chance even though I felt he was by far the more qualified. I felt bad for him, mostly because then people thought he was a Democrat and wouldn’t let their children near him.

  16. Brigham Daniels on September 22, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    I want to take up a few thoughts of the commenters.

    First, several comments have seemed to suggest that probability of making a difference in the outcome somehow represses desires of voters to vote. Clearly this is true. However, even when the chances of casting the deciding ballot approaches nil, I still believe that this impacts our stewardship as citizens and probability has nothing to do with that.

    Second, Tiffany seems to suggest that voting has little do with Mormonism. In my mind, this is flat wrong. It is one of the few civic duties that the first presidency has expressed its desire we take seriously. To me saying that civic duty and personal responsibility is nothing to do with religion is essentially questioning the blessing from which the religious duty arises: the blessing of living in a free country. I also do not think that my statement of “many Mormons” being “completely disengaged in politics” is overly broad. You may quibble with my characterization, but based on my experience, I stand behind it.

    Third, Right Trousers (nice name by the way) claims that Mormons have not left Democrats but that Democrats have left Mormons. In my mind, this sort of characterization is seriously hampering Mormons from looking at candidates and issues seriously. We elect people not parties. I have been quite involved in politics and have seen both good and bad people of both parties. I spoke to a very well informed Mormon who surprised me by saying he did not need to look too closely at the candidates because he was more conservative than most of the candidates, so he would almost always side with the Republicans anyways. I pointed out that many elected offices ideals played very little role. I felt that it was more important–for example–to have a county auditor who was honest than of an ideological stripe. It is not as easy as we make it out to be. I stand by my position that voting without the facts is guessing and that does more harm than not voting at all.

    Fourth, chads suggests that voting is not nearly as important as many other civic duties. I agree. However, I still believe that most of us have enough time on our hands to get educated, get out there, and vote.

  17. CS Eric on September 22, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    jjohnsen (#15),

    Your story reminds me of a good friend who ran for Magistrate Judge a few years ago as a Republican. He told me he had a hard time convincing his father that he was still okay, but if he had run as a Democrat in our heavily Republican corner of New Mexico, he would not have had a chance. As it turns out, he won handily.

  18. docrob on September 22, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    I have taught at BYUH for about a hundred years. During that time I have had the opportunity to talk to many LDS students from around the world about politics. For several years I have asked them if there is a political party in their own country that is considered the \”one true party\” by LDS members? Or, is there a party that LDS members think that they should join? Because this is such a strange question they usually don\’t understand it. When they finally get what I am asking, they answer, \”of course not.\” The follow up question I ask is, \” Are people looked down on because of their membership in certain parties?\” Again, the answer is always an astonished, \”no!\” I have only had one student from outside the US that has indicated that there was party unity among LDS in his country. He was from Jamaca and he said, \”Oh yes, we are all Socialists.\” So only in the US is there a belief that you have to identify with and vote with a conservative party to be a good member. If fact years ago a visiting prof from BYUP was lecturing in a religion class here and wondered off onto a \”hate socialism\” thread. The hands went up. \”You mean like my Socialist Stake President in New Zealand?\” \”What about my Socialist bishop or my Socialist family of three generations in Australia?\” The visiting teacher was flummoxed. He simply had no synapses that connected Socialism and Stake President. After babbling for a few minutes, he dismissed the class twenty minutes early.

  19. jjohnsen on September 22, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    I think especially in local politics, parties don’t matter as much. The guy that ran for state senate in my area a few years ago was much more conservative that the Republican incumbent. I think at that level they just want a shot, and don’t care how they get there. It still doesn’t matter, R wins every time.

  20. Sarah on September 22, 2008 at 8:53 pm

    You guys are making me glad I live in notUtah. Every time LDS bloggers bring up politics Utah ends out sounding like a stereotypical Orange or Marin County (California) on steroids.

    My whole family is highly engaged in politics — the person who cares least is the one who has “only” helped run a polling place (as opposed to stuffing envelopes and answering phones at campaign headquarters, traveling across state boundaries to register voters in key Congressional districts, and/or violating US law by joining in another country’s civil war and thus continue the push for worldwide socialism and the end to fascist dictatorships.) I believe we’ve contributed votes and money to nearly every major political cause in the US, except the John Birch Society — even the most conservative members of my family are unbelievably creeped out by those guys.

    Anyway, I can’t answer your questions, except to say that I don’t try and get people involved anymore. It just annoys them. And honestly, if someone fails to care enough to become educated or even just show up at the polling place at the right time, they’re only diluting my vote with garbage, and I’m better off without them. I’d even argue that they themselves are better off without their vote. So I’m not sure (potential) voter disengagement is all bad.

  21. sister blah 2 on September 22, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    (1) I agree with AG #12 that voting alone is pretty useless. The candidate recruitment and early stages of the primaries are where individuals can have the most impact. The last couple election cycles, I’ve tried to get involved at that stage. I keep in touch with friends “in the know” by email and attending party club meetings and find out who is sending out feelers about candidacy for various offices. I do my research and decide who I like, then actively support that person for a few months until they get momentum going. At this early stage, the difference to the candidate between having 2 active volunteers and 3 is HUGE–in other words, the impact I have is proportionally way more than just a single vote. Once things get to the general election, most people vote straight party line, so the ship has basically sailed at that point. Getting involved very early is very worthwhile.

    (2) I think LDS women don’t get very involved in politics because we tend to have a cultural bias against holding strong opinions because its unseemly or smells of “contention.” LDS women need to know that it’s ok to go a little Norma Rae crazy now and then.

  22. sister blah 2 on September 22, 2008 at 11:08 pm

    I hasten to clarify my #1 by saying that nobody should use the uselessnss as an excuse not to vote. Demographics with low turnout get ignored, period. The majority of states (including Utah and California) allow anybody to sign up for vote by mail (formerly called “absentee” voting). This gets rid of any excuse people might have (young mothers can’t get to the polls, etc). You don’t need to have an “excuse.” This page lists all the states that allow anyone to vote by mail. Strongly encouraged!! Vote-by-mail voters statistically have much higher turnout than other voters.

  23. mlu on September 22, 2008 at 11:30 pm

    There’s never been a time when the opinions of ordinary people mattered so much. It’s partly voting, but also what we spend money on, what websites we visit, where our eyes linger, what promises we follow. The powers of the earth study us relentlessly, trying to figure out what we want, so they can offer it to us.

    Reality is shifting before our eyes, driven by our desires, even our hidden desires.

    It’s a pity we’re so foolish.

    If we really wanted politicians who were wise and honest, with good character, we would have them.

  24. Hellmut on September 23, 2008 at 8:55 am

    Right Trousers, the fact of the matter is that Democratic presidents have been reducing abortion at much higher rates than George W. Bush.

    There are more effective tools to fight abortion than prohibition. Most importantly, when people’s know how to pay their bills because their incomes keep up with inflation, women tend to choose life.

    Whenever Republicans govern, the buying power of 40% of Americans declines. As a result, blue collar Americans become less likely to marry and to have children.

    If you are interested in impractical symbolism, by all means, continue to vote Republican. However, that vote would implicate you in more abortions. Anyone who wants to reduce the number of abortions, needs to vote for Democrats.

    The other element is, of course, education. Every other western democracy has better sex education and less abortions than the United States. Our irrational approach to sex education is a major contributor to the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world.

  25. queuno on September 23, 2008 at 9:57 am

    Last I checked, Texas is going to go for McCain, and it won’t be close. Forgive me in advance for being interested in the election, but not in the actual voting process.

    Although … I will vote … mostly because of the local candidates that I’m interested in seeing win (both Republican and Democrat).

    I know some local leaders recently have pushed this — that we need to be voting in local elections and encouraging local candidates. These races are not always Republican vs. Democrat…

    (Plus, my wife is a county election official, so if I don’t vote, I’ll catch it at home…)

  26. queuno on September 23, 2008 at 10:13 am

    (I’m also the sort who believes that no one is obligated to cast a vote for every race on every ballot. And I think it’s useful to analyze why 80% or whatever don’t vote in a particular election, rather than just write them off as lazy or uncaring… I think I learned this at BYU, where the only difference between BYUSA candidates was the color of the tie.)

  27. MattG on September 23, 2008 at 11:44 am

    Brigham, I think I also agree with Tiffany in your generalization of Mormon apathy to voting. Maybe it’s a phenomena unique to the members where you live, but I haven’t seen it in the community of Saints where I live (Northwest US). You can’t make a broad generalization like that and apply it to the entire church, not even the entire US LDS population. Could it be that the apathy you see in your LDS community is just typical American “non-voting” apathy that is projected on your local culture? I don’t really see the Mormons being any less involved than the average American voter, and in my experience, they tend to be more involved (yes, sometimes even for the Dems!). As for your perception of the Church’s political neutrality statement, I think your assessment is at best cynical and at worst bordering on paranoia. We take the political neutrality statement for what it is. There’s no implied or subliminal “vote Republican” agenda here. Maybe you need a vacation out of Utah to visit some other communities who live out in the “mission field” and see what a diverse bunch we really are.

  28. Brandon on September 23, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    I\’d be interested to see data, not merely anecdotal evidence, showing that Mormons tend to be apathetic during the election process. I don\’t know if you can make that assertion based on experience. It would be interesting to see what percentage of eligible LDS voters vote, relative to other population groups.

    One simple data point that I find interesting that, in some small way, counters your assertion, is told my father that \”40% of the Republican get-out-the-vote machine is LDS.\” Now, I don\’t know if that\’s 40% of 25,000 or 100,000 people, but it has to be over-representative of the LDS portion of the Republican party. Being active in the Republican machine, whether you agree with that or not, is not for the faint of heart.

    Furthermore, the LDS church is slightly over represented in Congress, with about 3% of Congressional representatives being LDS compared to about 2% of U.S. citizens being LDS.

  29. lamonte on September 23, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    MattG – speaking of broad generalizations, your assumption about Brigham Daniels’ address could fall into that category. He is a law professor at the University of Houston.

  30. MattG on September 23, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    Lamonte,

    Well said. I assumed he was from Utah. My apologies, Brigham. I still think he is generalizing though. I’d like to see some evidence that support his assertion that “even when Mormons show up at the polls they often have no clue about the issues.” Has he done some exit polling?

  31. Hunter on September 23, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Hey – does anyone have a link to the SL Trib interview of Elder Marlin Jensen referenced at the beginning?

  32. Brigham Daniels on September 23, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    MattG,

    I am glad you are annoyed with my characterization. Perhaps this suggests that your life experience is different from mine. Maybe we are not as far from the mark as I would have guessed.

  33. Brigham Daniels on September 23, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    I cannot find the Elder Jensen article online any more, so I pulled this off of an electronic database. If you are interested, I also saw the transcript of the interview in the database, I can post it too. Let me know Hunter (#31) or anyone else if that would be helpful:

    Copyright 1998 The Salt Lake Tribune
    Salt Lake Tribune (Utah)

    May 3, 1998, Sunday

    SECTION: Nation-World; Pg. A1

    HEADLINE: GOP Dominance Troubles Church; It hurts Utah, says general authority, disavowing any perceived Republican-LDS Link; LDS Official Calls for More Political Diversity

    BYLINE: DAN HARRIE THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE

    BODY:

    The LDS Church, through a high-ranking leader, is making its strongest public statement to date about the need for political diversity among members, while expressing concerns the Republican Party is becoming the “church party.”

    “There is sort of a division along Mormon/non-Mormon, Republican/Democratic lines,” says Elder Marlin Jensen, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. “We regret that more than anything — that there would become a church party and a non-church party. That would be the last thing that we would want to have happen.”

    Jensen said major national political parties may take stands that do not coincide with teachings of the 10 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but that should not put them out of bounds for members.

    A former attorney and lifelong Democrat, Jensen was careful in his comments not to suggest an official LDS preference for any political party but to maintain the church’s traditional stand of partisan neutrality.

    The First Quorum of the Seventy is the third tier in LDS Church leadership after the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and the governing First Presidency.

    Jensen for the past three years has been a member of the church’s Public Affairs Committee. He was designated by church officials to respond to The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for an interview on the topic of partisan imbalance in Utah and among LDS members.

    The Tribune’s inquiry came on the heels of two significant developments: Utah Democrats’ unprecedented failure to field a candidate in a congressional race and a statement from the LDS First Presidency — read over pulpits in January — urging members to seek elective office.

    In an hourlong interview at the church’s worldwide headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City arranged and overseen by LDS media-relations director Mike Otterson, Jensen discussed leaders’ views about the seeming demise of two-party politics among members. Among the concerns he aired:

    – The LDS Church’s reputation as a one-party monolith is damaging in the long run because of the seesaw fortunes of the national political parties.

    – The overwhelming Republican bent of LDS members in Utah and the Intermountain West undermines the checks-and-balances principle of democratic government.

    – Any notion that it is impossible to be a Democrat and a good Mormon is wrongheaded and should be “obliterated.”

    – Faithful LDS members have a moral obligation to actively participate in politics and civic affairs, a duty many have neglected.

    “I am in shock,” Utah Democratic Party Chairwoman Meghan Zanolli Holbrook said when told of Jensen’s comments. “I have never heard anything like this in the years I’ve been here.”

    “That’s an earthshaker,” said Democrat Ted Wilson, head of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and a longtime critic of the close connection between the Mormon Church and Republican Party.

    “Mormon Democrats have been praying for this,” said Wilson, who is LDS. “This is more than seeking — we have beseeched the divinity over this.”

    Utah Republican Chairman Rob Bishop’s reaction was less enthusiastic. “Any time a major player in the social fabric of the state, like the church, says something, it will have an impact.”

    “We obviously will not change,” Bishop added. “If Mormons feel comfortable we welcome them. And if non-Mormons feel comfortable, we welcome them, too.”

    Jensen, who was called as a general authority in 1989, said high church officials lament the near-extinction of the Democratic Party in Utah and the perception — incorrect though it is — that the GOP enjoys official sanction of the church.

    All five Congress members from Utah are Mormon and Republican, four of the five statewide offices are held by GOP officials and two-thirds of the state Legislature is Republican. Nearly 90 percent of state lawmakers are LDS. Democrats last held a majority in the state House in 1975, and in the Senate in 1977.

    President Clinton finished third in balloting in Utah in 1992, the only state in which the Democrat finished behind Republican George Bush and independent Ross Perot. Utahns last voted for a Democrat for president in 1964, when they supported Lyndon B. Johnson.

    Public-opinion polls show voters identifying themselves as Republican outnumber Democrats by a ratio of about 2-1.

    However, a statewide survey taken in April by Valley Research, The Tribune’s independent pollster, found the state equally divided when asked if the question if Republicans had too much power. Forty-six percent of the 502 respondents answered yes, 45 percent did not believe the GOP held too much sway and nine percent were unsure.

    “One of the things that prompted this discussion in the first place was the regret that’s felt about the decline of the Democratic Party [in Utah] 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,” Jensen said.

    “There have been some awfully good men and women who have been both and are both today. So I think it would be a very healthy thing for the church — particularly the Utah church — if that notion could be obliterated.”

    The idea that Mormonism and Democratic Party affiliation are incompatible traces back to the early 1970s, when LDS general authority Ezra Taft Benson, who later became church president, was quoted in an Associated Press interview as saying it would be difficult for a faithful member to be a liberal Democrat.

    Church officials later claimed the comment was taken out of context, although the AP stood by its account.

    Jensen said concerns exist on two levels about the unofficial linkage of the Republican Party and Mormon Church.

    One is the fear that by being closely identified with one political party, the church’s national reputation and influence is subject to the roller-coaster turns and dips of that partisan organization. Also bothersome is that the uncontested dominance of the Republican Party in Utah deprives residents of the debate and competition of ideas that underlie good government.

    “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,” Jensen said. “The national fortunes of the parties ebb and flow. Whereas the Republicans may clearly have the upper hand today, in another 10 years they may not.”

    Closer to home, he pointed to the Democrats’ precarious toehold in Utah — a circumstance highlighted by the dearth of minority-party officeholders and the current one-sided election in the 3rd Congressional District.

    Republican Rep. Chris Cannon in 1996 defeated Bill Orton, a conservative Democrat and Mormon who had been the lone member of the minority party in Utah’s delegation. This year, Cannon is seeking a second term without any challenge from a Democrat — a first in Utah history.

    (In 1982, Democrat Henry Huish missed the filing deadline and had to run as an independent. Still, he had the backing of the Democratic Party.)

    “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,” Jensen said. “There is a feeling that that is not healthy at all — that as a state we suffer in different ways. But certainly any time you don’t have the dialogue and the give-and-take that the democratic process provides, you’re going to be poorer for it in the long run.”

    There also are more immediate, tangible costs, he said.

    Jensen blamed the Republican monopoly for contributing to Utah political leaders’ inability or unwillingness to grapple with long-range planning issues. He pointed to the lack of state leadership on issues of open-space preservation and land-use planning.

    He also pointed to the massive, catch-up highway-building binge that has disrupted Salt Lake County commuters and businesses. “One might say that the transportation crisis that we’re in might have been averted had there been better balance in the parties and something was thrashed out 10 years ago, perhaps during Gov. Bangerter’s time, rather than being allowed to wait until we reached a crisis situation.

    “There are probably issues like that environmentally, educationally that we’d really benefit from if there were a more robust dialogue going on. But we’ve lacked that and I think we’ve suffered somewhat because of it.”

    Jensen’s comments are bound to cause ripples among the 70 percent of Utahns who are counted as members of the LDS Church, as well as millions of faithful throughout the country, say political observers.

    “This is the second dramatic time in the history of the state when forceful signals have been flashed from church headquarters calling on Mormons to choose up political sides more evenly,” said J.D. Williams, retired University of Utah political scientist.

    Williams compared Jensen’s public pronouncements to the church’s attempts in the 1890s to divide congregations up evenly among the two major political parties.

    “Thus, wonder of wonders, theocracy was the mother of democracy in the territory of Utah,” Williams said. “We achieved statehood five years later.”

    Jensen also referred to the 19th-century splitting of congregations along partisan lines, when the territorial People’s and Liberal parties were abandoned in favor of national party affiliations.

    He repeated an anecdote told by prominent LDS Democrat Oscar McConkie about his father’s recollections of a church leader telling a congregation during a Sunday morning meeting to “sign up to be Republicans.”

    At that time, Mormons favored the Democratic Party because it was less stridently anti-polygamy than were Republicans.

    When members of the flock returned for an afternoon session, the Republican sign-up sheet remained blank, Jensen said. “Brothers and sisters, you have misunderstood,” said the church leader. “God needs Republicans.”

    “And Oscar said his father would wink and say, ‘And you know, Oscar, those damned Republicans think they’ve had God on their side ever since,’ ” Jensen said.

    “I don’t know if you can make any use of that but it’s a great story. And there’s a little of that embedded in our culture, unfortunately,” he said.

    Elbert Peck, editor of Sunstone magazine, said it is noteworthy that it is not LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley or one of his counselors breaking the church’s silence on political imbalance.

    “It is not as official as if it was an apostle or a member of the First Presidency saying it,” Peck said. “Still, the quotes are out there and people will use them. You can bet they’ll be remembered and taken as a sign.”

    Peck, whose Salt Lake City-based independent journal publishes articles on historical and contemporary Mormonism, predicts similar comments will be made in other settings — church firesides and the like, because messages sent by LDS general authorities are repeated.

    “Privately, I’ve heard reports of these opinions, but not publicly,” Peck said. “The church leaders have been careful about saying anything publicly.”

    The tremendous growth of the Mormon Church worldwide has forced attention to its image as a good, trustworthy neighbor in the communities, states and countries where it is taking root, he said.

    “We need to develop a tolerance — so we don’t demonize people that we have a disagreement with,” Peck said. “It really was the church leaders’ position on abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment [in the 1970s] that was the death of the Utah Democratic Party, because it became a litmus test,” he said.

    Pro-choice and, more recently, gay-rights stands of the national Democratic Party have helped Republicans paint the donkey-symbol party as taboo.

    Jensen said it is time for LDS members to take a broader view of political affiliation.

    “We would probably hope that they wouldn’t abandon a party necessarily because it has a philosophy or two that may not square with Mormonism. Because, as I say, [parties] in their philosophies ebb and flow,” Jensen said.

    “You know, the Republicans came very close last time to bringing a pro-abortion plank into their platform. That was maybe the biggest battle of their [1996 national] convention,” he said. “Which shows that if you’re a pure ideologue, eventually you’re going to have trouble in either party.”

    “Everyone who is a good Latter-day Saint is going to have to pick and choose a little bit regardless of the party that they’re in and that may be required a lot more in the future than it has been in the past. But I think there’s room for that and the gospel leaves us lots of latitude.”

  34. MattG on September 23, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    Thanks for that article Brigham. Elder Jensen really is superb, and as an independent voter I wholeheartedly agree with the statements made.

    In reviewing my comments, I think I may be been a little brusque, I apologize. To summarize, I think the main point I’m trying to get across is that perhaps American Mormons are just as apathetic toward politics as the average American. It would be interesting to see some surveys done on this. In my experience, I tend to see a bit more involvement in the political process from LDS, compared to my non-LDS friends and colleagues. However I should also say that I have also seen some members behave as you describe, assuming that the GA’s tacitly approve the Republican party and their nominees when that statement is read. I think the ironic thing is that George W. Bush and the war in Iraq seems to have galvanized the American people out of apathy more than they had been before. Reports by those who watch these things indicate that political involvement this year is at a record high. Though he claimed to be “a uniter, not a divider”, it seems to me that the opposite has occurred. There are a lot more people in my ward who are not afraid to speak up against the Republican president and in favor of Obama, something I think may not have been as socially acceptable 4 years ago.

  35. Tom D on September 23, 2008 at 7:54 pm

    I always shake my head whenever this type of post comes along. Yet another “liberal” church member with either a persecution complex or an inability to understand that other reasonable people may have a different opinion than them without being either apathetic, stupid, or evil. Please step back from the keyboard and count to 100 the next time such an impulse strikes. Oops, I guess I should have taken my own advice :-). Or, President Monson’s http://deseretnews.com/cn/view/1,1721,500006926,00.html

    I agree that Utah is unusual politically, but I don’t see anything that can be done about it without either (1) inviting a few million more gentiles to live there (that seems to be happening, though it may take a few generations), or (2) abolishing the Republican and Democrat parties in Utah and inventing two other parties such as the Purples with Yellow Polkadots or the Yellows with Purple Polkadots. Perhaps there is even a third alternative that the good people of Utah will work out on their own.

    If I may generalize here, the *national* Democrat party seems to advocate many policies that *most* members of the Church dislike. The Utah Democrat party seems to try to separate themselves from the national party, but that doesn’t always work so well. The *national* Republican party seems to advocate many policies that *most* members of the Church approve of. The individual politicians of either party do not always vote in lockstep with their parties, but that doesn’t change perceptions.

    If I were still living in Utah, I might well vote Democrat for local candidates just on the general principle of having multiple viable parties. I know of some people who do just that. But, living outside of Utah I believe that — when in doubt — voting Republican is more likely to elect a candidate that I generally agree with. I generally approve of Governor Napolitano in Arizona.

  36. lamonte on September 24, 2008 at 9:23 am

    Tom – I guess you could call me “yet another “liberal” church member with … a persecution complex…” but I won’t accept that I have an “inability to understand that other reasonable people may have a different opinion than (me) without being either apathetic, stupid, or evil.” In fact my experience is that my friends on the Republican side display those characteristic on a regular basis. But generalizations aren’t as important as specific experiences.

    Years ago, while living in Utah, we had a ward service project at the pasta factory. While sitting in the break room with the group, someone made a snide comment about the absent minded Democratic candidate in the recently created third district who forgot to register on time and was forced to run as an independent. Then that person said, “I hope there aren’t any Democrats here” at which point my neighbor and friend did one of those comical signals using his one hand as a shield between him and me and using the other hand to point to me. But then, after I had been identified – or outed – to the group as a Democrat, another woman made the statement, “My grandfather told me that if you were a Democrat, you were an eeeeevil person” said with all seriousness. I wish I could say that this was an isolated case but in the 25 years since that happened I have experienced that kind of thinking on a regular basis. So if I have a persecution complex I feel somewhat justified. I can tell by your comments that you are a reasonable person and we can agree to disagree on the important issues of the day without assuming the other person is evil or sinister. That’s how it should be.

  37. Tom D on September 24, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    Lamonte, Thanks for the polite response to my somewhat heated post. As a lurker for several years I have often appreciated the civil spirit of most discussions in the blogernacle.

    I think the idiosyncrasies of Utah politics will work themselves out in time. I am less certain of national and world politics. We are living in “interesting” times. I often think of it as living through Helaman and 3rd Nephi. Our politicians almost inevitably mirror the concerns and desires of the voters. If the majority of voters desire wickedness, that is (usually) what we get. I think the majority of voters in the US still desire a Terrestrial Kingdom sort of righteousness, but I would rather we be aspiring to the Celestial. Pop culture is clearly descending to the Telestial.

    I think there are good voters and good politicians in both parties. Harry Reid often exasperates me, but I try to give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that he is being misquoted or misrepresented. I don’t doubt that a fair amount of that happens to all politicians. I believe that Satan and his cohorts are real and vigorously active “stirring up the hearts of the people to anger one against another” 3 Ne 11:29.

    I believe that we need to carefully resist this and actively seek the best individuals that we can to represent us. When our leaders don’t do what we think is “right”, I think it reasonable to complain, but we should forgive them too. And then maybe vote for someone else next time :-).

    Having served a mission in Ireland I must say that it was sometimes scary to hear what other people though about the US and Americans in general. The Irish were themselves generally pro-American, but I met some folks (including missionaries) from other countries that were amazingly antagonistic and often painfully ignorant of whom they spoke. I’m sure that Americans (and Republicans and Democrats) are the same way about various topics. I hope that we can all keep in mind that we are all children of God, brothers and sisters. Moreover, I hope that we can do an ever better job of spreading and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout our neighborhoods and throughout the world. That is ultimately the best source of comfort and peace. Take care!

  38. adair_from_ns on September 24, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    As a Canadian who tends to follow these conversations without contributing, I\’m always amazed at how complicated the US system of voting is. The first time I voted a few years ago, it took me all of 10 minutes on my walk home work, including walking up the street to the elementary school, and I wasn\’t even registered to vote in that riding (equivalent of a district), nor even in that province.

    Unfortunately, church members tend to lean consistently in one direction here as well, mostly toward the Tories, but that may be the Alberta influence on the rest of the country\’s Mormon population.

  39. Jonathan Waite on September 29, 2008 at 12:56 am

    I still haven’t seen anyone post any studies on this?? I wonder where this polling data is that was spoken of?? It would seem without that data, the discussion on LDS political apathy is moot. Perhaps it is peculiar to Utah Mormons?? I have lived most of my life in California and Nevada. Almost all of my LDS friends have been more politically involved than the non-LDS friends. But that might be just my own experience.

  40. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 29, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    I was a political intern during the 1972 elections. That was when the left wing of the Democratic Party took over the national party machinery, requiring quotas of women and minorities in each state delegation to the national convention. When Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the national Democratic Party decided to embrace it, without any discussion or debate at the local or state level. As it became clear that the national Democratic Party policies favored abortion, and opposed a strong national defense policy, Utah voters abandoned the Democratic Party and became Republicans. A state that had voted strongly for LBJ in 1964, where the two Senate seats had long been split between the two parties, and with equal numbers in the legislature (the McConkie family was prominent in Democratic politics) became much more polarized. Note that Democrats have still been elected to statewide office, as governor and attorney general, because Utahns still emphasize the candidate first, then political party. If the national Democratic Party just moved to a neutral stance on abortion, and showed support for a strong military defense, it would remove the two main problems that most Utahns have with that party. But rather than moderate its position on abortion, the national party has made unlimited abortion a litmus test for national party support for candidates. Similarly, Senator Lieberman’s support of an aggressive war against Islamic jihadists caused the national party to disown a former VP candidate!

    As much as people criticize Mormons for being doctrinaire on certain political issues, the fact is that the national Democratic Party is clearly controlled by people who have an ideological commitment that borders on religious devotion to those positions, and they are ready to excommunicate any Democrat who does not affirm obeisance to their catechism. Mormons in Utah are simply responding to what is in many ways a competing religion that is hostile to basic LDS beliefs.

    If you disagree, then may I remind you of the virulent anti-Mormonism that was shouted from the Left during Mitt Romney’s candidacy?

    Now I am not referring to the anti-Mormonism of some Republicans that manifests itself against presidential candidates, and LDS candidates in states dominated by people with anti-mormon biases, rather than against particular policies that Mormons tend to support. Nevertheless, I think people like Lawrence O’Donnell made it clear that any Mormon who tried to represent the public policies favored by most LDS, and who ran for president, would get shot down by a major element of the base of that party as well.

  41. thesnakeguy on September 29, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    In one party states the real election is the primary. This is where you vote to ensure the drug-abusing, dog-kicking, child-beating person doesn’t end up with an R next to their name in the general election.

    On another note. I grew up repeatedly hearing the argument that two competing ideas can’t both be true. The Catholic church and the LDS church both can’t be right. That is something I have come to accept as basic logical reasoning. So it is hard for me to say that both political parties are equally good. I can accept that we don’t have a perfect knowledge and so we should be tolerant of and get to know people in the other political party and strive to understand their point of view, but I can’t help but believe that one party is right and the other party is wrong. Jensen said he doesn’t want there to be a “church party.” Well, if one side is right and one side is wrong, shouldn’t we want all the members to be on the side that is right. That is not to say the parties can’t switch positions in being right or wrong over time, but I for one wish all members of the church were in the political party that is right. I don’t think the church should come out and designate a church party, but if we learn correct priniciples from the church, then when we govern ourselves we should gravitate to the party that largely embodies those correct principles.

  42. queuno on October 3, 2008 at 11:53 pm

    One of the frustrating things in life is when a fellow church member of good character standing runs for local office against people of shady character values only to find that a number of potential voters within the ward are not registered to vote and don’t care enough to help out.

    One of the frustrating things in life is when a fellow church member of good character standing — but terrible management skills and ideas — runs for local office against people of shady character values — who at least do what they promise to do — and said church member gets mad that ward members won’t automatically support him, just because he’s LDS.