The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is reaping a bitter harvest from its members’ long-standing fealty to the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Founding Prophet Joseph Smith and successor Brigham Young were by no means conservatives. However, over time the church became increasingly conservative in nature and in the political identification of its members.
Some see it as the very embodiment of today’s Republican Party, which they find incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Despite the church’s oft-repeated official statements to the contrary, conservative Latter-day Saints conflate its doctrines and policies with the GOP.
This traces at least to America’s hyper-ventilating anti-Communism during the Cold War. Latter-day Saints were drawn like bears to honey when President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Apostle Ezra Taft Benson as the 15th U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (1953-1961).
Benson, a future president of the church, engaged in a personal crusade against communism, in which he called Eisenhower a communist and implied church endorsement of the John Birch Society. President Ronald Reagan and other prominent Republicans labeled the John Birch Society as “paranoid,” “fanatic fringe” and “lunatic fringe.”
Correctly, or incorrectly, the church is suffering from its connections to the GOP.
Utah voting records show that about 50% voted for Republican candidates in recent elections, compared with only 15 percent for Democrats. About 69 percent of Utah’s citizens are members of the church.
Tension between liberal and conservative members is palpable in many wards and stakes. And it isn’t just in states such as Utah, Idaho and Arizona, which have relatively high numbers of adherents the church. It is everywhere.
Mask wearers receive various forms of non-verbal disapproval in worship services and some of the unmasked appear to revel in their rebellion against President Russell M. Nelson’s urgings for church members to mask up and get vaccinated.
It is instructive that many Latter-day Saints attempt to justify their anti-mask, anti-vaxx views with the same speaking points mouthed by conservative Republican politicians.
They are essentially claiming a right to expose their fellow citizens to a highly dangerous disease that may kill them and others.
Amazingly, the power of political devotion is so great that even large numbers of nurses and medical technicians are refusing to be vaccinated at the very risk of losing their jobs.
Those who chose to believe false claims that masks and vaccinations are either ineffective or harmful are morally responsible not only for COVID illnesses and deaths. They also contribute to the suffering and deaths of people who never contract the disease, but who can’t receive medical services, including life-saving surgeries, because hospitals are overflowing with pandemic victims.
The church is caught up in a whirlwind of controversy, but this is only the latest dust up between Latter-day Saints and the macro cultures in which they live.
Author Jana Riess (“The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church”) cites data that augurs poorly for LDS loyalty to the Republican Party. Surveys of members born after 1997 show that they don’t politically identify like their grandparents, or even their parents. Among the younger set, 46 percent identify as Republicans, 41 percent Democrats. This is a large increase in support for Democratic candidates.
The COVID pandemic is only the latest of hot button issues that church authorities are dealing with, and which by all signs will continue to plague them in coming years.
The church’s heavy-handed support for California’s Proposition 8, in 2008, remains in the craw of LDS liberals. Prop 8 passed, which would have prohibited same-sex marriages; but it was later ruled unconstitutional.
In 2015 church policy prevented children of same-sex couples to be baptized, but it was reversed four years later.
Still in the news is a kerfuffle stirred by apostle and former Brigham Young University President Jeffery Holland when he enjoined Brigham Young University faculty and staff to challenge peers who show public support for gay Latter-day Saints.
These and other social issues will be a major challenge for leaders and members alike.
Terence L. Day is a retired Washington State University faculty member who popularized agricultural, human and natural resource sciences for urban audiences. He and wife, Ruth, both descend from members of the Colesville Branch, created in 1830, and are life-long devotees of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.