Trump's election triggered an 'unabashedly faithful' group of activists: Mormon women

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Sharlee Mullins Glenn and Melissa Dalton-Bradford pose for a portrait outside of the Mount Timpanogos Utah Temple Thursday, July 20, 2017.

A few nights after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Sharlee Mullins Glenn stared into the bluish light of her computer screen and prayed for guidance.

With frustration burrowed deep like a tick under her skin and dread that overpowered her tiredness, Glenn stumbled onto the answer at 2 a.m. It took only a couple of clicks on Facebook before she became an “accidental activist.”

Within a few days, the online group she started with 25 like-minded friends ballooned to 400. Within a few weeks, 4,000 had signed on.

All of the members are women. Most are Mormon.

“We are unabashedly faithful members of the church,” Glenn said.

Cordial activism

As passengers checked in for flights and strode past with suitcases, about 20 members of Mormon Women for Ethical Government crowded into a lobby at Salt Lake City International Airport and sang hymns.

“When life’s perils thick confound you, put his arms unfailing round you. God be with you till we meet again,” they quietly chorused.

The April 7 rally, one of the group’s first, was a somber send-off for Betty Ramos Castro, a Colombian immigrant and mother who was living in Draper before she was deported under the new administration.

The affair’s tone — cordial, solemn, respectful — is exactly how Mormon Women for Ethical Government casts its nonpartisan movement (though members also aren’t afraid to yell into bullhorns in front of Homeland Security offices). The women of MWEG, as its adherents endearingly call it, follow the principles of nonviolence preached and practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

“We will not engage in name-calling, vitriol or hate speech of any kind,” reads one of the group’s strictly enforced guidelines.

“It is our belief that we must act always in kindness and with civility,” says another.

The online discussion posts, too, are peppered with comments like “thank you for sharing” and “you always find the most compassionate thing to say” and “good job, ladies.”

Jessica Preece, an associate professor of political science at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, has heard people joke that the group is an example of “what the internet could be like if everyone was nice.”

“Everyone seems to go out of their way to try to give the benefit of the doubt and be as charitable as they can,” she said.

Preece studies women in politics and suggests MWEG’s polite tone sets it apart from many of the so-called “resistance” movements spurred by Trump’s election.

A faithful movement

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a history of female activism.

Tribune file photo Susan B. Anthony and the Reverend Anna Howard Shaw, national suffrage leaders, met with Utah suffrage leaders in 1895. Susan B. Anthony is seated third from the right; the Reverend Shaw has her hand on Miss Anthony's chair; next to her is Sarah Granger Kimball, then Emmeline B. Wells and Zina Diantha Young (seated), who was General President of the Relief Society when this photo was taken.

Many of its early members — including some plural wives of LDS prophet Brigham Young — fought for women’s suffrage. More recently, one woman chained herself to the gates of a temple in Washington state in protest of the faith’s stance against the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1980s. Others, including the since-excommunicated Kate Kelly, have called for the ordination of women into the all-male Mormon priesthood.

MWEG looks to carve out a new space in that legacy in which members can adhere to church doctrine while also being politically involved. Glenn, a 56-year-old children’s book author who lives in Pleasant Grove, doesn’t believe the two are incompatible.

She quotes by memory speeches from Mormon leaders and scriptures that call for members to stand against hate and follow the example of Jesus Christ.

Glenn points to a verse in the LDS Doctrine and Covenants that says ”men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause.” She mentions Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s 13th Article of Faith: “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous and in doing good to all men.”

And she spouts lines from a 1996 devotional address by then-church President Gordon B. Hinckley: “I urge you with all the capacity that I have to reach out in a duty that stands beyond the requirements of our everyday lives; that is, to stand strong, even to become a leader in speaking up in behalf of those causes which make our civilization shine and which give comfort and peace to our lives.”

As Mormons, Glenn explained, “so much of what we believe propels us forward in this work.”

“That’s a very basic part of our church doctrine; that we need to use the agency that God has given us to bring about good and to stand against evil.”

Many MWEG members have completed missions for the faith and hold positions in the church. Glenn is a gospel doctrine teacher. Others are Young Women presidents overseeing teenage Mormon girls or serve on Sunday school boards. Some of the original founders work on Segullah, a literary journal and blog for LDS women.

The group is like the faith’s all-female Relief Society infused with grass-roots political activism.

Global reach

Mormon Women for Ethical Government’s emblem is a torch — mimicking the color of the Statue of Liberty — with a dove at the top in place of a flame.

(Photo courtesy of Mormon Women for Ethical Government)

It’s a reminder to be peaceful, Glenn noted, even when protesting.

“You can’t wallow in the mud with pigs,” she said, ”and hope to accomplish anything.”

While certainly set off by Trump’s campaign, MWEG does not oppose the president as an individual or any party. Instead, the group focuses on policies. It rallies against the so-called travel ban. It supports bipartisan health care reform. It condemns the proposed wall between the United States and Mexico. It encourages more voter participation.

Members write letters, call their representatives, stage rallies. They’re responding to daily “calls to actions” online. They’re running for office. They’re making cookbooks to benefit charities. And, just like the LDS Church, they’re spreading their message globally.

Melissa Dalton-Bradford, a co-founder of MWEG and an expatriate, often hosts a small branch of the group at her home in Germany. There are chapters in five Asian countries, two Middle Eastern countries (including Saudi Arabia), eight European nations, as well as members in the United Kingdom and Australia.

With politics, Dalton-Bradford believes, “anything that blows up in the U.S. sends tremors everywhere in the world.”

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Melissa Dalton-Bradford poses for a portrait outside of the Mount Timpanogos Utah Temple Thursday, July 20, 2017.

She’s witnessed that firsthand working with refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq who have resettled in Europe. As Trump campaigned, Dalton-Bradford would assure her Muslim friends “there was no chance this man would win.”

“You do not have to worry,” she told them. The author and public speaker couldn‘t imagine that promise would be broken.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that they are [now] in mourning,” Dalton-Bradford said. “Not just over Trump, mind you, but over the fact that he was elected in the first place, and, second, that he is still — in spite of all the mayhem and escalating violence — sitting in office.”

Politics get personal

When Cindy Baldwin gets sick with pneumonia — a complication from a genetic disease that fills her lungs with mucus — she reads the LDS faith’s foundational scripture, the Book of Mormon. During the presidential election last year, she found it difficult to focus on the passages.

“It was so stressful to feel like all of the stuff that was described was happening,” she said.

The 29-year-old author and Oregon resident heads MWEG’s health care committee — one of more than 30 boards ranging from education to refugees to constitutional violations. She is focused on advocating against any repeal of Obamacare that doesn’t include “a thoughtful replacement” plan (something which, from her viewpoint, wasn’t present in the several stunted attempts to draft legislation this year).

The group members delivered a bouquet of purple flowers to then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, after his foot surgery, urging him to vote against the proposals. They wrote letters and op-eds calling for a bipartisan bill with less “dire predictions for the number of people who would lose health care.”

UNITED STATES - MAY 4: Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, fresh off foot surgery, makes his way through Statuary Hall on his way to the House floor in the Capitol for the vote on repeal and replace of Obamacare (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

With Baldwin, the policy is personal.

The prescriptions she needs to treat her cystic fibrosis cost more than $450,000 a year. Each time she goes to the hospital — sometimes for two-week stays every three months — the bill is $80,000. Add in specialist visits, and the total tab for her care can reach $1 million.

So when her husband lost his job a few years ago, it was a strange blessing. The couple got a policy on the Affordable Care Act marketplace, and Baldwin’s pre-existing condition didn’t jack up their deductibles: “That was an enormously life-changing and miraculous moment for us.”

In MWEG, Baldwin said, she found a community where her Mormon faith and political leanings intersect. There are chapters in 35 U.S. states with the largest concentrations in Utah, Arizona, Texas and Idaho. The group is not officially associated with the Salt Lake City-based LDS Church, which declined to comment for this story.

‘An act of faith’

For two weeks, Lisa Rampton Halverson wrote a letter to Chaffetz nearly every day and sealed each in a purple envelope.

One was a rhymed poem, another a limerick. “We still laugh about that,” she said.

Halverson, a lifelong Latter-day Saint, lives in Springville and says she found her “tribe” with MWEG. For one thing, the members have prayed for her as she looks to undergo treatment to restore her hearing.

“The outpouring of love and support has bolstered me tremendously.”

Glenn put out the initial call seeking a blessing for Halverson. Aside from politics, she said, MWEG is about being sisters.

It’s also about adjusting the image of Mormon women as a whole.

“The perception of the world, at least outside the church, is that Mormon women tend to be, if not oppressed, then not empowered,” Glenn said. “Part of our strength lies in the fact that we work against that stereotype.”

Women certainly have been stirred to action by Trump’s election. The day after his inauguration, a half-million marched on Washington wearing pink hats and carrying posters jabbing at the new president for once bragging about groping women. In Utah, thousands filled the Capitol on the Legislature’s opening day.

Still, observed Preece, the BYU professor, “it is a little bit different at this point in history to see Mormon women decide to unite as Mormon women and get involved in politics.”

When Glenn first started the Facebook page, she didn’t intend to create a movement within the church. She was angry. She was terrified. She was determined.

And she doesn’t expect to let up anytime soon.

“It certainly became an act of faith … During this time, I spent a lot of time on my knees praying.”

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Mormon Women for Ethical Government founder Sharlee Mullins Glenn poses for a portrait outside of the Mount Timpanogos Utah Temple Thursday, July 20, 2017.