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Republican Party started out anti-Mormon

The party that now has the allegiance of the vast majority of Mormons once was the faith’s committed political enemy.

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U.S. Rep. Justin Smith Morrill, a Whig Party-member-turned-Republican from the Green Mountain State, sponsored the 1862 Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which banned polygamy and limited ownership in any territory by a church or nonprofit to not more than $100,000.

The LDS Church, of course, had amassed great swaths of land in the Utah Territory, and its followers, including Young, had dozens of wives.

At a glance

Editor’s note » About this series

This story is part of an occasional series on Mormonism and its intersection with politics — a subject The Tribune believes is topical given the high-profile presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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Lincoln didn’t pursue the church or polygamists under the act, hoping to find a truce with the saints while he prosecuted the Civil War.

Vermont Rep. Luke P. Poland later amended that law to order that all civil and criminal cases in the Utah Territory be handled by the U.S. District Court and dismiss any other judiciary system in the state that he feared were simply church puppets.

Poland’s hope was that the federal courts would then go after polygamists, but it wasn’t until the 1887 Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act — sponsored by Republican George Franklin Edmunds — and the subsequent Edmunds-Tucker Act that Mormons with plural wives were prosecuted.

Around 1,300 men were eventually jailed under that act.

The law also was successful in disincorporating the LDS Church, forcing Mormons to take their battle to court. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled against the faith but Congress took a step back when Mormon leaders issued a proclamation in 1890 banning polygamy. That also was a turning point for the icy relationship between Mormons and the GOP.

Turning to the GOP » Mormon leaders, upset with the Democrats’ inaction on the long-sought establishment of Utah as a state, looked to the GOP for help. The Republican Party of Utah was founded on May 20, 1891.

"Because of members’ previous clashes with the national Republican Party, many church leaders feared that most of the Saints would flock to the Democratic Party and in doing so alienate Republican friends who were working diligently for statehood," according to the Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History. "Therefore, several general authorities used their influence both publicly and privately to encourage members to affiliate with the Republicans."

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Utah finally gained statehood in 1896, though it would take decades longer for the Mormon faith to evolve into a Republican-leaning group.

The GOP’s take on social issues, such as abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment and gay marriage, drew Mormons into the conservative fold beginning in the 1970s.

Church apostle Ezra Taft Benson, who supported the right-wing John Birch Society and served as Agriculture secretary under President Dwight Eisenhower, helped further push his fellow Mormons into the conservative camp.

A report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in January showed that about 74 percent of Mormons lean toward the Republican Party and 66 percent of them call themselves conservative.

"Clearly, the Republican Party has taken the mantle of religious freedom and that bodes well for Mormons," says Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who converted to the Mormon faith and the GOP.

"Principles of the Republican Party align with what Mormons believe," the congressman added, though he quickly noted that there are many Democrats who are also devout Mormons.

While the bond between Republicans and Mormons has grown, there remains a significant segment of GOP voters — mainly Protestant evangelicals like Southern Baptists — that has reservations about voting for a Mormon candidate.

Romney tried to tackle that concern head-on in his previous bid for the White House, offering a major 2007 speech in which he said no one should be elected, or rejected, because of his or her faith. He also said that, if elected, the LDS Church would not hold sway over his decisions in the White House.

"Let me assure you," Romney said, "that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions."

LDS Church leaders in the past clearly picked sides between Republicans and Democrats. But they now stress the church’s nonpartisan stance and reiterate every campaign season that the faith does not back one party over another — even in the case of a candidate or platform in disagreement with a public position of the faith.

"Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in the platforms of the various political parties," LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson and his counselors said in a recent letter urging Utahns to attend neighborhood caucus meetings.

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