GOP Dominance Troubles Church

A long Salt Lake Tribune article about the Elder Marlin Jensen’s statements on the too-close relationship between the Republican Party and the LDS Church.

GOP Dominance Troubles Church
LDS Official Calls for More Political Diversity
Dan Harrie, the Salt Lake Tribune

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.”