Robert Gehrke: Uchtdorf donations highlight a delicate political tightrope LDS leaders must walk

Contributions from apostle’s family to Democrats stand in sharp contrast to the Trump backers in the pews.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency, and his wife, Harriet, leave the Saturday afternoon session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 187th Semiannual General Conference, September 28, 2017, in Salt Lake City.

It created a bit of stir this month when federal reports showed that Latter-day Saint apostle Dieter Uchtdorf had given money to the campaign of President Joe Biden as well as those of two Democratic U.S. Senate candidates in Georgia.

Uchtdorf issued a statement explaining that the donations — which violated church rules against leaders contributing to political candidates — were accidentally made in his name through a shared family account and stating that he regretted the mistake.

I spent some time tinkering with the ActBlue platform where the donations were inadvertently, incorrectly made and couldn’t figure out how it would happen. But that doesn’t really matter all that much.

Uchtdorf’s voter registration records had shown him as politically unaffiliated. In the past, most Latter-day Saint apostles had aligned with the Republican Party. Since then, most have taken advantage of a state law allowing voters to keep their registration private.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Apostle Dale Renlund had been registered as a Democrat, according to research by my former Salt Lake Tribune colleague Lee Davidson, before making his registration private as well.

For the Latter-day Saint faithful disgusted by four years of Donald Trump, the Uchtdorf donations were a welcome sign.

Those members, however, were part of a distinct minority. For all that was written in the past year about unease among Latter-day Saint voters with the former president, he won Utah — albeit not as comfortably as some of his predecessors — and his followers are doggedly devoted.

Even after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters that led to his second impeachment, a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll showed Trump remained more popular than Biden in the Beehive State.

Last summer, a Tribune poll found that Trump’s approval among “somewhat active” and “very active” Latter-day Saints was 72%. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s approval among the same groups was just 43% — and that was well before Romney voted a second time to support Trump’s impeachment.

The passion that significant portions of members have for the former president won’t just go away, and neither will the chaos and radicalization he sowed across the country, including within the church — whether they’re anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, #DezNat adherents, or general conspiracy theorists.

Indeed, one image from the Capitol riots that will stick with me is the man dressed as Book of Mormon military leader Captain Moroni carrying his “Title of Liberty” — imagery that Sen. Mike Lee also clumsily invoked at a Trump campaign rally in Arizona before the election.

Corralling the political radicals in the faith will pose a significant test for the church.

Research suggests that partisan identity, especially in a charged political climate, is primary in shaping views, and that religious identity flows from that, Benjamin Knoll, a Latter-day Saint political science professor at Centre College in Kentucky, told me. When the two conflict, it’s religious identity that changes to match the political views.

Church President Russell M. Nelson and his colleagues have not sat idly by as Trumpism took root in the church.

The faith’s first public policy statement under Nelson was in support of “Dreamers,” young people who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents as children and allowed to stay in the country.

When Trump sought early on to severely restrict refugee resettlement, the church voiced its support for “all of God’s children across the earth, with special concern for those who are fleeing physical violence, war and religious persecution” and urging governments and people to cooperate to alleviate suffering. It reiterated the sentiment in December 2019.

In 2018, church leaders issued a strong condemnation of the separation of children and parents along the Southern border. “The forced separation of children from their parents now occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border is harmful to families, especially to young children,” the faith declared in a news release. “We are deeply troubled by the aggressive and insensitive treatment of these families.”

Last year, Nelson publicly joined leaders of the NAACP in denouncing prejudice and calling for people to come together to find solutions to racism. His first counselor, Dallin H. Oaks told Brigham Young University students and faculty last October that racism must be “rooted out” and that it should be universally accepted that “Black lives matter.”

In December, church leaders issued a formal statement congratulating Biden on his election victory, noteworthy primarily because so many within the faith refused to accept the outcome. That same month, they updated the church handbook advising members to seek out trusted sources and to avoid spreading misinformation as it can “promote anger, contention, fear, or baseless conspiracy theories.”

Then there has been the church’s coronavirus response. In last October’s conference, M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, urged members to pray for the nation and its leaders, and also to pray for a vaccine “that will end this pandemic.”

When the vaccine came, Nelson and his fellow leaders were photographed receiving their shots and advised members of the faith to do the same. In December, Renlund released a video counseling members that wearing masks, socially distancing and not gathering in large groups are signs of “Christlike love.”

And just last month, the church donated $20 million to support global vaccination efforts.

These are hardly radical notions and they don’t signal some new, progressive course for the church. Neither can they be considered coincidences. Taken in their entirety, it seems clear that church leaders are keenly aware of the extremism that has infiltrated a portion of the membership.

They will almost certainly return to some of these topics, because the alternative would allow a virulent strain of beliefs at odds with doctrine to continue to grow, posing a fundamental challenge to the authority of church leadership.