The Mormon church is officially neutral regarding how its members align themselves politically. There are good historical reasons — every time church members have exercised political power as a bloc, they found themselves about as welcome as typhus to their fellow Americans.
While it is partly true that early Latter-day Saints were persecuted for their peculiar beliefs, it is more true that they were repeatedly expelled and exiled in the 19th century for their habit of voting in unison.
The political domination of Kirtland, Ohio, by Mormons meant Joseph Smith’s ability to charter a “bank” was felt regionally in the Panic of 1837 when it failed, necessitating a relocation.
The Saints’ stay in Missouri fared no better. The mostly Yankee Saints mixed it up with their mostly Southern pro-slavery neighbors. Brawls broke out at polling stations, and bloodshed escalated until the Mormons were expelled by the state militia under threat of extermination.
At first, Illinoisans welcomed the destitute refugees with unusual generosity. Granted sweeping powers to govern themselves, the Mormons took full advantage and created a constabulary, courts and even a militia to protect their rights, all under Mayor/Prophet/Lt. Gen. Joseph Smith Jr.
The trouble with the Mormon city-state of Nauvoo was that it was careless of the rights of those who weren’t Mormon. Fall afoul of Smith or church leaders and you could count on fines, jail or having your printing press smashed and scattered in the street.
Illinois state government couldn’t allow what it viewed as rogue sectarianism within its borders, and Smith was jailed. Even his murder didn’t assuage the politicians in Springfield, who demanded the Mormons leave. (One can’t help but wonder what the young Abe Lincoln thought of these events in his state.)
Brigham Young led the Saints west specifically to establish a government free of the United States. When the U.S. showed up anyway, a decades-long power struggle ensued, pitting Latter-day Saints (who formed the People’s Party) against everyone else (the Liberal Party).
Though outnumbered, the Liberal Party often won through voter suppression. Polygamists were disenfranchised, and foreign-born immigrants weren’t allowed to vote, a blow to a predominantly British and Scandinavian church.
Utah was finally admitted to the Union on two conditions: Mormons had to renounce polygamy and disband the People’s Party. They could become Republicans or Democrats; however, if they became all one, or all the other, the deal was off.
Mormon affinities ran Democratic; after all, national Republicans had been ferocious in their persecution of polygamy.
Church leaders recommended that those who weren’t stalwart Democrats, and tended to be political fence sitters, become Republicans because, well, someone had to. There are stories of bishops walking through neighborhoods and arbitrarily designating every other house D or R, or assigning party by which side of the chapel one happened to be seated on that Sunday.
Happily, the result was a nearly equal partisan divide. Over the years the fortunes of the parties ebbed and flowed, with Mormon congressmen and state officeholders as likely to be Democrat as Republican.
In 1974, the apostle and eventual church President Ezra Taft Benson reflected a change among Mormons when he said it would be difficult to be a devout Mormon and Democrat at the same time. Distressed at the social upheavals of the 1960s, Utah Mormons began turning to the Republican Party as a bastion of “traditional” values.
Today Mormons are once again overwhelmingly associated with one political party. This is a problem for all the old reasons. Non-LDS Utahns, who make up almost half of the state, feel disenfranchised and unrepresented by a Legislature that is more than 80 percent Mormon.
Nationally, being associated with the extreme stands of Republican “wingnuts” is terrible PR for a church that puts a premium on image and stresses inclusivity to attract converts.
And, finally, that old bugaboo — the federal government, this time via the IRS — may once again take an interest in church affairs if leaders use church facilities to blatantly promote a partisan political agenda.
Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.