New Congress has fewest Latter-day Saints in 32 years. How might that impact the church?
The faith will have less clout when issues arise, especially given that, for the first time in 104 years, it has no LDS Democrats to work with Biden.
(Andrew Harnik | AP file photo) Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., arrive before NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a Joint Meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 3, 2019. Lee and Romney are among only nine Latter-day Saints now in Congress, the smallest number in at least 32 years.
Nine Latter-day Saints are now members of Congress, six in the House and three in the Senate — the fewest in at least 32 years. And for the first time in 104 years, Congress includes no LDS Democrats, only Republicans.
That could dull the influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Washington.
“It is a substantial change that impacts church interests,” said David Magleby, a professor emeritus of political science at Brigham Young University. “It matters that there will not be a Democrat in Congress who can assist the church or church interests with the Biden administration. It comes down to things like visas for missionaries. It comes down to things like the pandemic and trying to get missionaries out of difficult places quickly, when being able to interact with the State Department is critical.”
Twenty years ago, the church reached a high of 18 members in Congress, which has now dwindled by half. And six of the nine now there are from Utah, with the others from neighboring Idaho and Arizona. Through the years, Latter-day Saints had come from a far more widespread area, including New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Florida, Oregon and Hawaii.
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
The church had punched over its weight for years in Congress but no longer appears to be.
About 2% of the U.S. population is LDS. Twenty years ago, Congress was 3.4% LDS — showing the Utah-based faith was perhaps overrepresented. Now it is perhaps a bit underrepresented, holding 1.7% of seats.
For years, some Latter-day Saints held significant leadership positions. Former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid rose the highest. He led Senate Democrats from 2005 to 2017 and was Senate majority leader from 2007 to 2015.
For decades, former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch was chairman of such major committees as Judiciary and Finance. Former Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and Jim Hansen led the House Natural Resources Committee.
Now, no Latter-day Saints are in party leadership positions, and none chairs any committees, with Democrats apparently winning control of both chambers after runoff elections in Georgia. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, is expected to be the ranking Republican on a full committee (Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs).
For the first time since 1917, Congress includes no LDS Democrats after Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico retired and Rep. Ben McAdams of Utah was defeated. (Congress also has included at least one LDS Republican since 1947 after none served during the New Deal years of 1933 to 1947).
In short, the global church of 16.5 million members now has relatively few members in Congress, none in powerful leadership positions, and no Democrats.
“If Harry Reid makes a phone call during the Obama administration, it would be taken far more seriously than if Mitt Romney or Mike Lee makes a phone call during a Biden administration” on a church-related matter, Magleby said. “There is nobody, no Democrat in Congress who can make that call now. That matters.”
Magleby added that the church historically has had good relationships with both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
“Some people think there’s a hostility among Democrats towards Mormons. That’s not true,” he said. “That’s in part due to people like [former Arizona Rep. and presidential candidate] Mo Udall
and — more than anyone in the modern era — Harry Reid.”
Magleby said that Reid “was a devout member of the church and known to be such
. He was in a caucus that many people presume to have hostility to Mormons. But he was elected over and over and over again to leadership.”
The political scientist sees some other possible complications because all Latter-day Saints in Congress are not only Republican but also many are seen as leaders of the far right.
For example, Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., heads the House Freedom Caucus, seen as the furthest right block of the House GOP. Utah Sen. Lee and Reps. Burgess Owens and Chris Stewart are also seen as leaders of the right.
“It reinforces a perception, which may be a misperception, that the church is very, very conservative,” Magleby said, despite often-repeated statements by the church that it is politically neutral, and that good ideas and people may be found in all parties.
The highest-profile Latter-day Saint in Congress now is Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who made history in 2012 by becoming the first member of the church to become a major party’s presidential nominee
“There’s a faction within the Senate, and even more so in the House, that is hostile to Romney,” Magleby said. “They never really were comfortable with him because he’s more mainstream and they’re not.”
But he sees Romney being able to wield power as a centrist in a Senate that is essentially evenly divided. If he and a few fellow GOP centrists, such as Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, “decide they want to cut a deal with Biden, they can and it’s done…. And Biden knows that.”
For the record, the nine Latter-day Saints in Congress are Utah’s entire delegation: Sens. Romney and Lee, and Reps. Owens, Stewart, John Curtis and Blake Moore. They also include Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson and Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs.
Two other current members of Congress are former Latter-day Saints.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who became the first openly bisexual member of Congress
, was raised LDS and also graduated from church-owned Brigham Young University. While she has said she has great respect for the religion, “I just don’t believe the tenets of the faith that they believe.”
The family of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joined the church when he was 8 years old in Las Vegas but left it a few years later
. The former presidential candidate wrote in his autobiography, “When we left the church a few years later, mostly at my instigation, we did so with gratitude for its considerable contribution to our happiness in those years.”