Editor’s Note: The following is a transcript of a Salt Lake Tribune interview, conducted on April 23, 1998, with Marlin Jensen of the 1st Quorum of the Seventy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Marlin is also a member of the LDS church’s Public Affairs Committee. (Jensen’s comments have been transcribed verbatim. The Tribune’s questions were edited for clarity and concision.)
The Salt Lake Tribune: Earlier this year, the Mormon Church First Presidency issued a statement encouraging members not only to actively participate in politics, but to run for elected office. What was the motivation?
Marlin Jensen: I think the letter went to stake presidents, I believe just in the United States. But we even gave some thought and it was discussed how to do something on a worldwide basis because I think the perception that our leaders had is that as individual church members we’re maybe not quite living up to our obligation to be good citizens. Not just voting, but actually participating in the functions of government on an appointed and an elected basis.
So I think the letter reflects a general concern worldwide that it is really part of our religion to be good citizens and to do our share in the community. And its probably related doctrinally in a way to the idea that we’re not just to build up the kingdom of God but we’re also to establish his righteousness.
So that there’s a need in order for the gospel to be preached and carried off to all the world to have an environment of righteousness in which that can occur. And, in a word, without a good neighborhood and a good community it’s very difficult to have a good family. So good government is very much in the best interests of us as a church and in the work we have to preach the gospel. So that I think would have been the general concern.
But I think frankly there was a more specific concern related to the state of Utah as well that prompted the initial discussion of this.
It seems like historically – and maybe it had to do with our more rural character at the time, but it seems (and I have thought about this in the little community where I was raised in Huntsville) that the people of the church, the main leaders, the main people in the church in that period maybe 40 or 50 years ago, were people of affairs. They were people who did lead the community as well as the church. Of course, there was a much greater homogeneity in those days and we’re much more diverse now. But I think there’s just a feeling that we need to be more active and more visible and reach out more in a civic way than we’ve been doing.
Here in Utah in part I think it’s related to the fact that 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 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.
We are locally and I think 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. 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. So there are just so many reasons I think to have a robust multi-party system going locally and nationally for us, as well as the international responsibilities we feel – that’s at the heart of this as well.
Tribune: Democrats, only half-jokingly, say it may be time for the LDS Church to once again draw a line down the middle of ward houses and assign parties.
Jensen: I think if you look at the letter you’ll notice that there’s a reference here to urging men and women to be willing to serve – as you were mentioning – on school boards, in city and county councils and commissions, state legislatures and other high offices of either election or appointment, including involvement in the political party of their choice. I think that really was an attempt, is an attempt on the part of the First Presidency to indicate that part of being a good Latter-day Saint would be to be politically active in a party of our choice. That we just can’t sit by and let other people – other good people – do that.
So I doubt we’ll get a stronger statement than that because there’s a real desire to remain politically neutral. And I don’t think you’ll find that the leaders of the church are going to say anything more definitive than they’ve said in this letter on that point. But that certainly is what was desired with that statement was that people would become more actively involved in a formal way in the political process through political parties.
By the way, I can’t resist just telling you one little story that Oscar McConkie told me once. (He’s a prominent Democratic member of the church, if you know him.) Apparently, one time, his father was the only Democrat in the Utah Senate. And he was asking his dad about it once. His dad said, “Oscar, this goes way back to the 1890s when we did this” – it was called the democratization of Utah for statehood. But it was really an attempt to get us aligned along national party lines rather than the Peoples’ and Liberal Party thing that we had. So the brethren did.
(In fact, there’s a great story in Huntsville how they came and some were sitting on the one side of the church and some on the other and the McKays and all those that were on the one side became the Democrats and the Petersons and all those on the other side became the Republicans.)
But anyway, Oscar’s father said in one of these meetings in southern Utah, one of the brethren in the morning session said, “I’m going to put a ledger in the foyer and we’d like some of you to sign up to be Republicans.”
Because, oddly, at that time the Democratic Party was the one that Mormons favored and that really favored Mormons, too. That’s really why we gravitated toward them originally.
When they came back for the afternoon session, no one had signed the book. So the general authority, whoever he was, said, “Brothers and sisters, you have misunderstood.” He said, “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.”
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.
Tribune: Some LDS members subscribe to the notion that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be a faithful Mormon and a Democrat. People point to such things as the gay rights and pro-choice planks of the national Democratic Party. How do you respond?
Jensen: That’s true. And it is a challenge. And yet, 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 convention. Which shows that if you’re a pure ideologue, eventually you’re going to have trouble in either party.
When people say to me, “How do you rationalize being a Democrat?” I just say I take everything that’s true and good and hang onto it. And the basic, historically the basic foundational principles of the Democratic Party have appealed to me more. But that’s a matter really of personal choice, it has nothing to do with our salvation.
I think 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.
I think those who have done that successfully – I think, for instance, Gov. Rampton and Gov. Matheson are outstanding examples of Democrats who were very popular in Utah and who occasionally had to sort of distance themselves from the national party and its platform. But (they) did it judiciously and were very effective and enjoyed very good relationships with most church members and were some of our very best governors frankly, I think, in the history of our state.
So it can be done.
If you think about ways to rejuvenate the Democratic Party, I don’t think much beyond a statement like this that you’re going to find our church doing anything about that. We hope the members will exercise their agency and do much good of their own free will.
And I guess 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, they in their philosophies ebb and flow. I think the main thing is to stay involved and work within the existing framework, work for changes if they need to brought about.
And maybe, to succeed in Utah especially, a politician if he’s Democratic, is going to have to say, “I’m a Utah Democrat. I’m different than the national party in some important ways.”
Bill Orton did that, I think, pretty well. So I think it could be done by others.
It’s lamentable I think that we’ve got Chris Cannon running unopposed for the first time I think in the history of Utah in a congressional race. Surely there’s got to be another good and wise man out there who could have taken him on. And he would have benefited from it as well as everyone else.
Tribune: Bill Orton complained about exploitation of religion in his 1996 defeat – such things as political signs in the yards of bishops and stake presidents.
Jensen: That’s probably more a cultural than a religious problem. I remember the night that my brother hosted a Republican mass meeting. My father (a lifelong staunch Democrat) without any prior knowledge went up to his home that night and found all these Republicans there in the living room.
He came right to my house and said to me, “What does your younger brother think he is doing?”
I said, “Dad, he’s just exercising his agency. Aren’t you glad you raised independent, bull-headed sons?” And he said, “Well, I was until tonight.”
Sadly, I think it’s regrettable when that kind of a spillover occurs.
I can see how someone from a distance can look at that as a very unfair circumstance. I don’t know how to say this, but I have been here (the First Quorum of the Seventy) nine years and I had no idea of the church’s actions institutionally in political matters until I came here.
But if someone said, “What’s your overriding impression after nine years and three years on the Public Affairs Committee?” I would say, “I am surprised, very surprised, at how little influence the church seeks to exercise in politics in Utah or nationally.” Because the church really is a force to be reckoned with – especially here.
So when these little aberrations occur, it’s just due I think to poor judgment sometimes, unthinking actions on the part of us as individuals in the church. Certainly institutionally, it’s not intended to be that way and it’s regretted at this level when it is that way.
Tribune: Is the church position that local leaders have freedom to express their political preferences, but that it should not be read as an official sanction of the church?
Jensen: That’s true. And that’s hard to separate out. When I was stake president and people would come to seek my endorsement, I always declined, respectfully.
I just said, “I would endorse you and if I weren’t the president of the stake I would certainly sign your ad or appear in the newspaper.”
But I just felt like it was very hard for a lot of people to separate my church position from my citizen’s hat. So I tried to be extra judicious.
But not everyone sees it that way. Some of them feel like, “Just because I’m a bishop or a stake president doesn’t mean I have to resign my franchise this year and I’ll precede.” So it does create, I think, a misimpression in some cases.
Tribune: Is the problem of lopsided partisan affiliation seen to be a problem elsewhere around the country among LDS members? Or is it perceived as a situation unique to Utah?
Jensen: No. I think really the whole Intermountain West, at least, suffers from the same imbalance among church members. And may among the population generally in those states – speaking of the intermountain states.
Democrats are outnumbered 3-1 in our state in the Legislature and those conditions exist in the five mountain states – Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Idaho. I would think Arizona would probably be very close to that, too.
I don’t know that we’ve got that condition anywhere else that I’m aware of.
Tribune: What is the attitude of church leaders toward the lingering sentiment among some Mormons – apparently stemming back to comments made by former LDS President Ezra Taft Benson – that it is difficult to be a good LDS member and a Democrat?
Jensen: I do not know about the authenticity of his statement. But, taking it for a true statement, that may be something you would want to verify. I don’t know that this (recent First Presidency) statement was issued at all with reference to that statement.
But I think I could safely say that 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 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. There have been some awfully good men and women who have, I think, 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.
You think about what would have to happen to accomplish that. I think it would take the individual action of some good people. The other day when we were talking about this I remembered my favorite song – Stout Hearted Men. “Give me 10 men who are stout-hearted men, who will fight for the rights they adore. Give me 10 who are stout-hearted men and I will soon give you 10,000 more.”
I think if there would be just a few good men come forward – and women – in Utah as Democrats who would run for high profile office that would begin turning this tide. And in the beginning maybe the messengers would be a lot more important than the message, if we just had good, credible people who would do that. Most of them I think who are out there and who might do that are just leery, I think, because the record of Democrats in recent past years has been so abysmal.
But, yes, I think, at least my own personal hope would be that this letter would be read broadly enough to encourage someone who is a latent Democrat, or who might be considering that affiliation, to say , “Gee, I could do this. This says involvement in the political party of our choice.” And I would hope it would have that salutary effect on people.
Tribune: Any concern about Republicans who may have embraced the letter as affirmation that their party is the officially sanctioned one?
Jensen: We’ve taken note of that feeling on the part of some. And the timing of the letter – and the fact that it coincided with some things that were happening nationally that didn’t put the Democratic Party in the best light at that time was purely coincidental. Those things that were happening did not motivate this letter at all.
There had been, I think, building for some time a feeling that we just needed to become better citizens as Latter-day Saints. But if the letter is being read that narrowly by some they certainly missed, I think, the more expansive intent that the First Presidency had in discussions that gave rise to this.
Tribune: Despite repeated church statements encouraging political involvement over the years, voter turnout among LDS is down, as it is with the general population. What is happening to turn people off to civic affairs?
Jensen: I’m not sure I’m sociologist enough to answer that. And there probably have been some political scientists and social scientists who have maybe tried to analyze this in recent years. If they have I haven’t read any of their studies.
But my own personal feeling and observation based on the little world – and it really is quite little these days – in which I live, would be that we’ve lost, in a sense, community.
We’ve probably, you know speaking very candidly, lost some community within the church in the sense of wards being the strong cohesive community of people that they once were.
Part of that I’m sure has to do with urbanization and lots of different sociological forces that would bear on this. We probably live more independently today as people and we don’t have maybe the community and group rallying points that we once had.
So I think that that tends to make people feel more distant from each other, from their government. It makes them feel, I think, less empowered to do anything about what’s going on. It just sort of makes you feel like it’s going to happen anyway. “So what? So why try?” So I think there is a little of that malaise.
And I think that’s been compounded by some of our leaders in recent years not behaving as well as they might have before, during and after their public service. So that’s created a cynicism I think a little bit on the part of most of us. And there are probably other forces that have contributed to just a general lack of interest, a feeling maybe of futility on the part of the average person.
So to offset that and override that is quite a chore. We’ve attempted to do it like I think the church should, which is to teach the doctrines of the church and say, you know, God helped create the constitution and we’re to uphold it and to participate under that form of government, let’s do it. But at least institutionally at this level the most we can do, I think, is to teach the principles and encourage the people and hope it happens.
Maybe this letter is the first of several things that will be done. I don’t know really personally where this will take us but obviously if it doesn’t have the effect the First Presidency hoped it would we may do something else. And this may be talked about more in the future. It’s certainly a key issue for us.
Tribune: Are you aware of any future plans on part of church to encourage political involvement?
Jensen: Not at the present, no. But I’m sure this is being assessed. I know in the Public Affairs Committee we’re watching to see what impact this has in Utah and elsewhere.
Tribune: More than a year ago, church leaders issued a statement that firearms in churches were “inappropriate.” Was that a message sent encouraging a change in state concealed weapons laws that was not heeded?
Jensen: No. At least not within the realm of my knowledge. I don’t think I was here actually when the genesis of that statement may have occurred. But I think there was a request that we formulate a position on that if we wanted to and we did. But it is not a burning issue with us. We just wanted, I think, to be on record, of how we viewed that institutionally.
Tribune: There is a perception in Utah that there is a direct channel between Mormon Church hierarchy and political leaders. What is your view on the accuracy of that perception?
Jensen: If you think about our real reason for being as a church it has nothing to do with politics. The best way still to help mankind is to make us all better men and women. As long as that’s our central mission – and it always will be to teach the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ – then our only reason actually for venturing into the public realm at all is to help ensure that that can happen.
That’s why the First Amendment issues, for instance, have always really been important to us and why we’ve gone off on some of the other little political issues that we have.
But we spend our political capital I think very carefully and are always very thoughtful and deliberate I think before we venture into that arena.
You may know right now we are involved in helping preserve traditional marriage by assisting with the passage of legislation that will ensure that marriage remains the union of a man and a woman. And family is so much at the heart of the gospel and of our life, in the here and hereafter, that I can see why the church would do that because it’s central to our mission.
But to go beyond that just doesn’t make sense for us. And yet in a state where we’re 60 or 70 percent of the population it’s very easy I think for people to perceive us being involved in things that we’re not and heavy handed in lots of areas and ways that we’re not.
Tribune: Please expound on the marriage legislation involvement in Congress.
Jensen: We actually helped there (in Congress) with what is known as the Defense of Marriage Act and then we’ve been active on a state-by-state basis actually just helping quietly to promote legislation that will ensure traditional marriage. And doing it I think in a very charitable way because its very important to us not to appear homophobic, as they call it, because I think we have great compassion for people who are challenged by same-gender attraction. But our fundamental teachings are such that marriage has to be between a man and a woman.
But we’ve done the same thing with alcohol, as you know, and with gambling and with other moral issues over the years.
I must say though, doctrinally, agency is such a precious thing to us as a church. And that’s really the tone of this letter – it starts with a reference to being anxiously engaged in good causes and doing many things of our own free will and bringing to pass much righteousness using the gospel principles as our guide.
So our hope is that this would energize the membership generally into doing just that – not look toward Salt Lake City at all on these things. But just study it out and use good judgment and do something about it. The atmosphere, the environment would be so much more healthy if we were doing that generally everywhere, but especially here in Utah.
Tribune: What is the immediate detriment from lack of strong two-party system?
Jensen: I can think of two or three things with long-range planning. One of them right now I’m thinking of is land-use planning where there seems to be a reluctance right now on the part of a very good governor to get involved in that on a statewide level.
Where there may be some who feel that if we had the healthy dialogue that could press that issue a little stronger right now that we would be in the process of doing something that would really be of great benefit to us now and in the very near future.
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.
It would be reflected I think most acutely in the long-range planning that we do in those critical areas of our lives.
Water management, for instance, is another area where I think we’re behind maybe five years at this point. Development of adequate culinary sources. Again, it would just help if we had a multi-party system that was really working.
Tribune: Interesting that you should start with land-use planning. Historically, Mormons were planners. Do you see any irony that land-use planning would be viewed negatively by political leaders?
Jensen: Absolutely, you talk about a historical twist.
Yes, but see if I were a pure Democrat, I would say what you have there is Republicanism and their desires to create wealth, which basically is what you do with unfettered land use. So in my mind, if you’re again a pure Democrat, you’d be in there saying we do need some government regulation in this kind of a case.
You can sharpen your focus there and say this is where dialogue really would help and where the ideologies of the parties really do make a difference. There’s some substance to the differences there and if the one voice is basically unrepresented, then we’re going to suffer I think over time.
Tribune: Utah has experienced tremendous growth in recent years. Do church leaders generally believe things need to be done that are not occurring?
Jensen: Frankly, I don’t know if we’ve discussed that…. Not that we wouldn’t be participants but it probably isn’t anything that we would take the initiative to do as a church because it’s sort of beyond our mission.
We’d want to be a good neighbor and we’d certainly would want to husband our own properties well. If you take downtown Salt Lake City and the church’s holdings here, if I could say it modestly, I think we’ve done a good job holding the city and making it a beautiful city and a good city, a clean city.
But I think that does stray beyond our mission. We would certainly serve on boards and lend our expertise and our money, too, which we have often done in the past. But you wouldn’t see us, I don’t think, being the forerunners in that kind of initiative.
Tribune: What is the policy regarding partisan politics within wardhouses, and is it a problem?
Jensen: This is related to an experience I had on my mission in Germany where we had a little branch in Germany that was presided over by a buck private. He was from the Philippines, a wonderful, wonderful fellow.
Into that branch one day came a 2nd lieutenant, fresh out of flight school. I happened to be there on a Sunday morning when this young 2nd lieutenant came into the branch and introduced himself to the branch president as Lt. So-and-so.
I’ve never forgotten that little Filipino brother took that man by the hand and he looked him in the eye and he said, “Brother, in the church we don’t have any lieutenants. We’re just all brothers.”
You know, that’s the spirit of what ought to happen in a branch house or in a ward house.
I don’t know. What you’re talking about I haven’t seen. There are occasionally mistakes made, I think. Situations where judgment maybe isn’t the best and someone may say something, even from a pulpit sometimes someone may say something, or it will be done through inadvertence. But I really think those are very few and far between.
I think there’s really quite a conscious attempt made by most Latter-day Saints to be non-partisan and to be charitable toward people of other persuasions and other affiliations.
So I know, at least institutionally here, boy, we make every effort, even down to where the church publications are conscious of not featuring one political party to the exclusion of another. And that’s a problem, we don’t have many Democrats to feature.
You can only put the good Nevada senator’s picture in the paper every so often even if he’d like it every Sunday.
But there’s a real attempt made, I think, to be non-partisan and to not be offensive or heavy handed in any way on these matters we’re talking about. That certainly would be our desire as a church.
If as individual members we err sometimes then we’re sorry about that and we learn. There is correction when that occurs. Occasionally you’ll hear of someone forgetting that you shouldn’t let something happen in a church and it’ll happen and there’s always a call made and a correction given. It’s not done with impunity, I can tell you that.
I’ve always had this feeling about lawyers, or the way people feel about lawyers. They have this vague notion that lawyers know something that they don’t know and they don’t know what it is but they don’t like it. We don’t really know anything that you don’t know, although we’d like maybe to perpetuate that illusion.
But in the church, there’s nothing covert being done. That’s something I would maybe even just volunteer. Everything I have seen the church undertake here has been aboveboard, has been in the light of day. There are no agenda that we don’t announce.
I wish that impression could be given to the people of Utah especially, because I know that there is sort of a division along Mormon/non-Mormon, Republican/Democratic lines. I think 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.
Tribune: Is there anything on horizon between now and the elections in regard to additional statements from the church regarding politics?
Jensen: No, other than maybe the typical political neutrality kind of statement we make each year not to use the buildings or our mailing lists for political purposes. But I don’t think beyond that that, we will.
It’s interesting, I happened to be in my home ward the day this (political involvement statement) was read. And I just kind of looked around. I must say it wasn’t sensational to most people, which I felt kind of badly about because I had been a part of the discussion and the formulation and then had seen this finished product as the First Presidency put it together and, of course, was very interested.
But I could see some yawning and some totally disinterested and a few who were really keying into it. Not everybody has an active interest in public affairs, in political affairs.
Again, it’s the idea that we all get a chance to pick and choose and decide what’s important for us in life. But I think generally there’s a feeling that we’ve got to take political life more seriously as a church. And I think it really does relate to family and the idea that you cannot have a good family in a vacuum. You’ve got a community, you’ve got a state. And we have an obligation to take part in the governance to establish righteousness so that there is an environment where people can live a life like the gospel prescribes. That’s the reason I think we’re doing it.