Washington • The incoming Congress will include fewer Mormons than in nearly three decades, a development that could dent The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' clout in Washington.
With the retirement of Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Sen. Dean Heller losing re-election, there will be 11 Mormons in the House and Senate come January, bringing down the number of Latter-day Saint adherents in Congress to the lowest level since 1990.
Mormons have enjoyed an oversized presence in Congress for some time, with a higher percentage of Latter-day Saints in the chambers than in the U.S. population. The new Congress will more closely match the faith’s numbers nationally — an estimated 2 percent.
Congress included 18 Mormons in 2004-2005. The numbers have ebbed and flowed since but never reached that peak again. The new Congress’ Latter-day Saint contingent doesn’t include Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both of whom grew up Mormon but do not belong to the faith now.
A wave of retirements and losses this year has contributed to a smaller Latter-day Saint cohort for the incoming session.
Sen.-elect Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican who will replace fellow Mormon Orrin Hatch, said he doesn’t see any concern with the drop in members of Congress from his faith.
“I don’t know that the church per se looks for power in Washington or has power or has legislation that the church is seeking that is anyway different than other faiths — Jewish, other Christian faiths or Muslim faith, for instance,” Romney said. “So the number of people who are religiously oriented is probably about the same as it has been, and I think we’ll work together.”
The LDS Church, though, does have a high interest in Washington politics. It has employed lobbyists before.
While some of the church’s efforts to influence politics in the nation’s capital aren’t often publicly known, the faith’s leadership has leaned on Mormon members for legislation that helps its outreach.
In 2005, then-Sen. Bob Bennett, at the request of church leaders, got an amendment into an agricultural law that would shield churches from criminal penalties for allowing immigrants who are not legally in the United States from doing volunteer work. The amendment became law but sparked controversy with some hard-liners complaining that it was a loophole that could spawn terrorism.
Over time, Latter-day Saints in Congress have had outsized roles in Congress.
Hatch, for example, is the longest-serving Republican senator in history and has ascended to the role of president pro tempore, a constitutional office that is largely ceremonial but puts the senator third in the line of succession for the presidency.
When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was in office — the highest ranking Mormon in U.S. politics ever — the Nevada Democrat kept copies of the Book of Mormon, the faith’s signature scripture, to hand out to visitors. And he was the go-to person for Mormon-related issues as they came up.
“It certainty did help when Harry Reid was there, from a church standpoint,” says former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, now a Fox News contributor.
But Chaffetz says the incoming Romney may be the fail-safe for Mormons. He’s so respected, such a big deal, the former GOP congressman from Utah says, that he can offset any numerical reduction in fellow Mormons in Congress.
“The high-profile nature of Mitt Romney will really help,” Chaffetz says. “To have Mitt Romney’s presence creates an awfully good presence for the church, along with Sen. [Mike] Lee [of Utah] and the others.”