Harry Reid: A Mormon in the middle
Washington » Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid keeps a copy of the Book of Mormon in his office just off the chamber floor. There's a second copy handy to give away to someone in need of spiritual guidance.
"I've had more than that," says the Nevada Democrat, pulling the extra edition from his desk drawer. "I have one left."
The Temple-recommend-carrying Reid is very active in his church, say fellow members in the Washington area. But that may come as a shock to some Mormon critics who contend that the Senate leader's political stands put him at odds with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The latest round of religiously charged criticism came after Reid told gay rights groups in a private meeting that the LDS Church's efforts to back the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in California was a waste of resources and hurt the faith's missionary efforts.
Utah Republican Party Chairman Dave Hansen posted a news story on that subject on his Facebook page, prompting several conservatives to challenge Reid's Mormon credentials.
Conservative activist and Utah blogger Holly Richardson said she found Reid's comments disconcerting and doesn't see how Reid's far left political beliefs can align with the LDS Church.
"I just don't get how his politics translate to somebody who has LDS beliefs," Richardson says. "He's an embarrassment to me as a Mormon."
Reid, who in 2007 became the highest ranking elected Mormon in the church's history, says he's faced this for years. And he's not offended.
"I think some of the most unChristian-like letters, phone calls, contacts I've had were from members of the [LDS] church, saying some of the most mean things that are not in the realm of our church doctrine or certainly Christianity," Reid said last week during an interview in his office.
Reid converted to Mormonism his senior year in college and attends church just outside the District of Columbia when in Washington or in Boulder City when in Nevada.
He recalls a time when his grandchildren were trick-or-treating at a local LDS ward event and came upon a poster featuring a picture of the Devil and Reid, and asking "Can you tell the difference?"
"I remember it," Reid says when asked how he deals with the criticism, "but I try not to let people who do not represent the teachings that I have learned interfere with my basic beliefs."
Religion and politics » Reid isn't the first and likely not the last political leader to face fire for personal religious beliefs.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on the Vatican earlier this year, an anti-abortion Catholic group hand delivered a letter calling for her to be ousted from the faith for her pro-abortion rights stand. A few Catholic bishops said during the 2004 presidential campaign that they would refuse Democratic Sen. John Kerry communion for his position on abortion.
Questions were raised during John F. Kennedy's bid for the presidency about whether Rome would call the shots because of his Catholic faith and similar questions arose with Mitt Romney, a Mormon, during his White House bid last year.
"Having Mormons criticize Harry Reid, Catholics criticize Nancy Pelosi -- George W. Bush got criticism from Methodists -- it's not an uncommon experience at all," says John Green, senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
"There are disputes within almost every religious community about what it means to be a strong supporter of the faith. What is it to be a good member?" Green continues. And because much of that dispute deals with controversial subjects, it spills over to politics.
"It is a very tough spot that Sen. Reid is in," Green says. "It ought to be tough enough to represent Nevada [and be majority leader] without the religion angle and the religion angle just makes that much tougher."
Washington lobbyist William Nixon, who is also the church's Arlington Stake president, says Reid is in politics' most precarious position.
"Serving as a majority leader in either party is always difficult for politicians," says Nixon, a Republican. "You need to be the spear carrier for your party even on issues that are in the extremities and that often is at odds with what's good politics at home or even how you may worship personally."
The LDS Church declined comment for this story but pointed to its statement on relationships with government.
It says that elected officials who are LDS make their own decisions "and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with a publicly stated church position."
And the church has made efforts in the past to dispel the notion that it sides with conservative politics. In 1998, church General Authority Marlin Jensen stressed that good Mormons can also be good Democrats. The late James E. Faust, a Democrat and then a member of the First Presidency, the church's top governing body, said it was in the church's best interest to have a two-party system.
Still, Mormon faithful remain overwhelmingly conservative. A survey released in July by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed that 65 percent of Mormons aligned themselves with the Republican Party or leaned that way, while 22 percent sided with the Democratic Party.
There are 14 members of the LDS Church in Congress. Ten are Republicans and four are Democrats.
But even some of the well-known Republican elected Mormons defend Reid as a faithful church member.
"He has the right to voice his opinions but I would under no circumstances challenge Harry's credentials as a member of the church," says Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.
Bennett's Utah Senate colleague, Orrin Hatch, says it's not fair for fellow Mormons to disparage Reid as anything but a devout Mormon. Hatch says he didn't agree with Reid's statement on the gay marriage ballot question but said he's entitled to speak it.
"I can personally tell you that Harry is a good member of the LDS faith and he was expressing a personal opinion that his side feels very deeply about," Hatch says.
Reid says church leaders have never complained about his political statements.
Reid's calling » Shortly after being elected in 1986, church leaders summoned Reid to their Salt Lake City headquarters.
"It was a pretty short meeting," Reid says. "They said, here's your assignment: Be the best member of the church you can be. That was it."
Even on the most recent issue of gay marriage, Reid says he doesn't disagree with the church's position on traditional marriage. The senator says he voted in Nevada for the state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
But he says he's expressed his concern for years to leaders about the church stepping into the debate and that the millions the church invested in the Prop 8 campaign was bad strategy.
Reid said he's not suggesting the church change its position, just that it not speak out so strongly. "It's just bad strategy to create so much ill-will in California."
The Democrat, though, says he understands the backlash he gets over such statements. He notes that most of the church's lay ecclesiastic leaders are conservative and he's fine with that.
"I don't think my faith is a hindrance to what I do and I'm sorry if people feel that I in some way embarrass them," Reid says, "but I have to frankly say that even on this issue there are a lot of people that say 'we agree with you.'"
On Sunday, Reid, with his security escort in tow, likely made his home teaching rounds after his ward's three-hour service. Anyone who questions his Mormon credentials should see that, says Jim Vlach, his home-teaching companion.
"He's got a tremendous burden with health care [reform] right now, but despite that, he finds time for home teaching," says Vlach.