Controversial campaign tactics take a religious turn on the eve of Election Day in Utah

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Rep. Patrice Arent speaks as the bipartisan House Clean Air Caucus holds a press conference, Jan. 22, 2014, at the State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City to discuss legislation regarding Utah's air quality.

In the Book of Mormon, a character named Captain Moroni uses his torn coat as a banner to motivate the Nephite army.

The scriptural character’s inscription, known as the “Title of Liberty,” is among the most beloved passages within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it made an appearance in the mailbox of some Utah voters this weekend as part of the campaign materials of a Republican candidate for the state House.

“Please vote in memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, our peace, our wives and our children,” read a mailer for Todd Zenger in near-identical language to the scriptural verse Alma 46:12.

The mailer also describes Zenger as “the only House 36 candidate” who supports limiting abortion, the free exercise of religion, the public display of “In God We Trust” and recognizing pornography as a public health crisis.

Zenger is running against Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, a four-term incumbent and the state’s only Jewish legislator. Photos of the mailer gained significant attention online over the weekend, with reactions that ranged from criticizing the material as in bad taste, to accusations of anti-Semitism.

In a prepared statement, Arent said she was disappointed by the mailer. She said Jews across the country feel vulnerable in the wake of a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, and the lesson of that tragedy should be one of respect and tolerance.

“The right to worship as we choose is one of our most precious liberties,” Arent said. “It is vital that we judge everyone by their merits, regardless of religion or creed.”

In a statement provided to The Tribune on Monday, Zenger said he recognizes the contributions made by people of all walks of life, religions, faiths and beliefs. He added that he regrets any misunderstanding caused by his mailer and believes in showing kindness, compassion and respect to all people.

“I apologize for any hurt caused by my choice of words,” Zenger said. “It was never my purpose or intent to be insensitive to any person, race or religion, or to malign any religion or race.”

The United Jewish Federation of Utah had posted on Facebook that the implications of Zenger’s campaign materials were “naive, spurious and misguided.”

“With religious freedom under attack and congregants viciously martyred," the post stated, "this is no time to sow discord and discrimination implicitly or even unintentionally.”

And Utah Gov. Gary Herbert also weighed in on the issue, tweeting a photo of himself and Arent and calling her a wonderful person who respects the points of view of others.

“I can say that while we don’t agree on every topic,” Herbert said, “I have always appreciated her dedication to preserving freedom of religion and conscience.”

In a subsequent tweet, Herbert suggested that anyone mischaracterizing Arent’s positions read passages from the Bible and Book of Mormon, including 2 Nephi 9:34 which reads, “Wo unto the liar, for he shall be thrust down to hell.”

Zenger currently serves as a member of the Granite School District Board of Education. According to a biography on his campaign website, he previously worked at the Salt Lake City law firm Kirton McConkie, which is the main law firm for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but left in 2017 to develop his own firm.

The mailer was the first of two instances of campaign tactics that alluded to the beliefs and practices of the state’s predominant faith.

On Sunday, many Utahns reported that they received unsolicited text messages from an individual or group claiming to be the Independent Republicans of Utah. The text message encouraged support for Ben McAdams, the mayor of Salt Lake County and Democratic opponent to Rep. Mia Love in Utah’s 4th Congressional District race.

“The Independent Republicans of Utah want you to know: you won’t be excommunicated for voting for Dem Ben McAdams — he’s the best Republican in the race,” the text stated, seemingly referencing a disciplinary consequence for Latter-day Saints who are found to be violating church teachings.

Love posted a screenshot of the text message to her Facebook page, calling it “inappropriate” and saying her daughter had received the message while at Sunday church services.

On Monday, Love said the message is consistent with the “deceptive tactics used by the national Democrats” during the current election cycle.

“I am disappointed at the extent people would go to win this election," Love said.

At least one of the callback numbers listed for the text message led to a disconnected line. And Rob Anderson, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, said the GOP is investigating the text but is as yet unaware of the individual or individuals responsible.

“I have no idea who they are,” Anderson said. “I don’t think it’s a prank. I think it’s a deliberate attempt to affect voters and the votes they cast.”

The matchup between Love and McAdams is among the most competitive in the state, with recent polling showing tied support or an emerging lead for McAdams. National political handicappers have also ranked the race as either a “toss-up” or leaning in the direction of the Democratic challenger.

On Sunday, McAdams' campaign spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend denied any involvement in the text messages.

“These texts are not coming from the Ben McAdams for Congress campaign, or anyone affiliated with our campaign,” Heyrend said in a prepared statement. “As an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mayor McAdams respects the church’s long-standing neutrality in political races and would never imply their involvement in this race.”