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Mormons talk policy and more at Obama White House

Published June 13, 2011 7:39 pm

Roundtable • Gay marriage, religious liberty, humanitarian efforts among topics.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If the White House could ensure that gay marriage would not lead to requiring the LDS Church to allow same-sex weddings in its temples, that would go a long way toward allaying Mormon fears.

And if the Obama administration would publicly recognize the Utah-based faith's community service, humanitarian outreach and public policy efforts, that might forge a bond between the two.

These were among the suggestions for bridge building offered last month at an afternoon meeting in the White House with 15 East Coast, mostly left-leaning LDS twenty-somethings.

It was sponsored by the administration's Office of Public Engagement as part of President Barack Obama's 100 Youth Roundtable discussions.

"The administration looks forward to building on the relationship we forged with the LDS Church that began with an early meeting between President Obama and [LDS] church officials," White House spokesman Adam Abrams said Thursday, "and continued with the recent Easter prayer breakfast and this roundtable."

The LDS group included a stay-at-home mom, an academic, a college student, a young professional, a religious scholar, a new convert, a gay member, a feminist, a blogger, an overachiever, a future CEO, an Idaho farm girl and an intellectual, reported Chelsea Shields Strayer, and participants made it clear to the White House conveners that they were not "representing the church in any official way."

They also didn't reflect the bulk of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' U.S. membership. In 2009, a survey conducted by Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found 65 percent of Mormons identify with or lean toward the Republican Party.

In general, though, this discussion wasn't notably "liberal," said Kristine Haglund, editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. "We talked about a lot of causes like maternal and child health, education, urban decay, etc., that are pretty generically humanitarian. For instance, I talked about [LDS apostle] Todd Christofferson introducing the concept of fasting to a bunch of charitable groups in Nashville as an example of religiously motivated service that worked in a secular setting, even with an explicitly religious explanation. I'm pretty sure that's not a discussion that would have been problematic for conservatives."

On the whole, she said, "the participants' Mormon-ness was more on display than their political affiliations."

To get the discussion going, Paul Monteiro, who directs the Office of Public Engagement, asked the visiting Mormons how they might work together better to achieve common goals.

The group suggested several ways, according to Strayer.

They told White House staffers about the LDS volunteer ethic that requires every Mormon to participate in the church's organization and expects members to give time, money and service to those in need.

"They had us go around the table and share where we all served [LDS] missions," Strayer wrote in an online forum for the Exponent II magazine. "It was profoundly satisfying to see almost every continent represented by the participants."

LDS participants discussed religious liberty, California's Proposition 8 and family-friendly policies.

They also pointed out that Mormons too often have been seen in the past as "strange and different" from other Americans. If the White House could "publicly acknowledge" the humanitarian works the church does, they said, it could "lead to more members seeing political options that align with beliefs in both parties and a sense of pride in and acceptance of progressive views."

Haglund found the conversation exciting, but she is unsure what practical results might emerge, because the discussions were so wide-ranging.

"Mostly," she said from her home in Belmont, Mass., "it was a useful exercise in diplomacy."

White House staffers discovered that there were "at least a half dozen Mormon Democrats," she quipped, as well as lots of "urbane, thoughtful people in the church who have useful ideas to contribute."

They also learned about the church's structure, which can mobilize people quickly and effectively.

"I got kind of teary thinking about the truly staggering capacity for good that the [LDS] church organization enables," she said, and about the beliefs that motivate Mormons to "want to accomplish noble goals."

But Haglund also had a sense of "dual alienation."

"I was a Mormon specimen in the White House to look at," she said, "and a Democratic specimen that Mormons might not like."

It might help her and the church, she said, if Mormons were more committed to a two-party system.

pstack@sltrib.com