Senators Mitt Romney and Mike Lee of Utah come from Mormon royalty. They both attended Brigham Young University, their family names are hallmarks of Mormon history, and each had fathers who held prominent positions in government and the church.
Pundits in and out of Utah have looked to Lee and Romney as the defining dichotomy of Mormon politics — Lee being a Trump loyalist and Romney a Trump antagonist. In fairness, they have proven to be different as was evident in their reactions to the January 6 attack. Whereas Romney had the courage to speak truth to power, Lee was a human windsock beholden to the slightest Trumpian breeze.
However, there are more than two paths cutting across the Mormon political landscape than those of the Tea Party tub-thumpers like Lee and the supply-side Romneyesque conservatives of yesteryear.
Former U.S. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, who converted to Mormonism as a college undergraduate, represented an alternative path within Mormon politics. Ironically, it may well be Reid, the scrappy old boxer yet measured, moderate democrat (himself the antithesis of Mormon royalty) whose views more closely align with the rising generation of Mormons. In this sense, Reid is not an anomaly of a bygone era but a bellwether of things to come.
When Lee was a young Mormon, he lived in D.C., where his father served as President Reagan’s solicitor general. The Lees and the Reids attended the same congregation, where Lee had the privilege of being in a scout troop led by Reid, who was midway through his journey from Capitol Police officer to congressman to Senate Majority Leader. To help them earn their “Citizenship in the Nation” merit badge, Reid took his troop on a tour of the U.S. Capitol.
One can envision a young Mike Lee marveling, as many kids do, at the sense of power that emanates from the U.S. Capitol. The difference, however, is that Lee saw the power and prestige of government as not merely inspiring but also attainable. His father, his troop leader and his childhood experiences in D.C. offered him a front-row seat to how politics work in America.
When Lee arrived in Washington as a freshman senator in 2011, Reid was the Democratic leader in the Senate and had recently helped pass the Affordable Care Act, one of the greatest accomplishments of his career. Lee had ridden the anti-Obamacare wave to the Senate, representing a generation of Mormons who saw the Republican party and its platform as the only political entity morally compatible with their religion.
Among the faithful, however, a new era is emerging in which lockstep loyalty to the GOP can no longer be taken for granted. Jana Riess, author of the book “The Next Mormons: How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church,” has done extensive research on younger Mormons. She told me there is reason to believe that especially in coming years Lee may not have “that automatic in” he has so far enjoyed.
“The demographics of Utah, in particular, are changing,” she said. Of course, she attributes this in part to the increase of non-Mormons moving into the state. But she also does not underestimate the more progressive attitudes of young Mormons who tend to be more accepting of LGBTQ+ rights and immigration reform.
“Lee is pretty skilled at opposing things. What we haven’t seen yet is a constructive legislative agenda,” Riess said. “You can’t sustain good government on rage.”
During Reid’s career, most of his fellow Mormons did not align with him politically — some to the point of writing to church leaders to request that he be excommunicated. Ironically, though many young Mormons may not even know his name, it was Reid who first legitimized their progressive views within the church. Standing up for gay marriage, Roe v Wade and Obamacare within the faith does not necessarily require courage today. In Reid’s day it did.
In the end, the scoutmaster may get the last word. Perhaps Lee was not ready for anything more than a merit badge, as the former scout’s ultimate demise may not come from the Romney wing of the party as many have predicted.
Rather, it will come from a generation of younger Mormons who identify not with Lee’s brand of angry, privileged conservatism but with the hopeful, compassionate and inclusive worldview best represented by the dean of the old school — the gentleman from Nevada.
Addison Graham is a sophomore at Brigham Young University majoring in American studies and Spanish.