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Contemporary American Politics
by David B. Magleby
Latter-day Saints are an integral part of the politics of the intermountain West of the United States. They play important roles in U.S. politics and government, and members have held high positions in all three branches of the federal government and in many state and local governments. The Church encourages its members throughout the world to be involved in government and civic affairs (see Civic Duties). Official Church statements on such matters as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the MX missile have been important in the politics of these issues.
On most issues and in most elections, the Church has remained neutral, admonishing its members to study the issues and vote according to their conscience. A member of the First Presidency said in 1951:
The Church, while reserving the right to advocate principles of good government underlying equity, justice, and liberty, the political integrity of officials, and the active participation of its members, and the fulfillment of their obligations in civic affairs, exercises no constraint on the freedom of individuals to make their own choices and affiliations . Any man who makes representation to the contrary does so without authority and justification in fact [Richards, p. 878].
The Church encourages individual choice in elections, although through the 1960 election Church leaders often publicly endorsed or indicated their personal preference for U.S. presidential candidates (Jonas, p. 335). Despite any corporate interest it may have in Utah, the Church has not become directly involved in elections in those jurisdictions for many years.
While many non-LDS candidates have been elected to public office in Utah, Church membership and affiliation do appear to be important to political success in Utah, as well as in some surrounding areas of the intermountain West with large LDS populations. Candidates for office sometimes advertise their Church affiliation, Church leadership positions, and family size as part of their political campaigns. Local Church officials sometimes become involved in politics either as candidates or as supporters of candidates. Some voters incorrectly infer an implicit Church endorsement of candidates or issues in these situations.
While the Church rarely takes an official stand on candidates or issues, it does possess substantial political power. Its membership constitutes an overwhelming majority (70 percent) in the state of Utah and significant portions of the population in Idaho, Arizona, and Nevada. It also exercises political influence through its corporate and business interests. The Church's business interests and its print and broadcast media (Bonneville International) give it a means to participate in politics. Editorials from these media are often considered to reflect the views of the Church.
Church members in the late twentieth century are generally Republicans, often strong Republicans, though in earlier generations Democratic influence prevailed. Data on Utah indicate that 69 percent of the Latter-day Saints are Republicans, a figure higher than the 57 percent of Utahans who are Republicans and the 47 percent of western Americans who are Republicans. Increased Church activity is even more strongly correlated to Republican partisan identification. This relationship between Church activity and attachment to the Republican party is also related to age; younger, very active Latter-day Saints are most likely to classify themselves Republicans. Party identification among members of the Church has the same behavioral consequences as it does among non-Mormons nationwide. Most members of the Church are politically conservative, both by self-classification and in attitudes toward economic, social, and lifestyle issues. The conservatism of many Church members reinforces their partisan preferences, especially with regard to the national political parties. Little is known about the partisan or ideological predispositions of LDS members outside the United States.
Recent nationally prominent LDS political figures also tend to be disproportionately Republican, although for all of U.S. history, LDS congressmen and senators have been only about 50 percent Republican. LDS congressmen tend to come from Utah and surrounding states, but include several California members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Utah, Idaho, Michigan, and Arizona have all had LDS governors. LDS-elected gubernatorial officials and national legislators represent an even partisan balance.
Several Latter-day Saints have played key roles in recent Republican administrations. President Eisenhower's cabinet included apostle and later President of the Church Ezra Taft Benson as secretary of agriculture. President Nixon's cabinet included David M. Kennedy as secretary of the treasury, and George Romney as secretary of housing and urban development. The Ford, Reagan, and Bush administrations also had several members of the Church as key staff. Church members played a generally less visible role in the Democratic administrations of Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter.
Church members have been important participants in the judicial branch as well. While no member of the Church has been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, several Latter-day Saints have served as court of appeals, district court, and state supreme court judges.
The Church has been most visible politically in discussion of moral issues. In 1976, after years of silence on political issues, the Church issued a statement opposing the ERA: "We recognize men and women as equally important before the Lord, but with differences biologically, emotionally, and in other ways. ERA, we believe, does not recognize these differences. There are better means for giving women, and men, the rights they deserve" ("First Presidency Issues Statement Opposing Equal Rights Amendment," Ensign 6 [Dec. 1976]:79). This formal institutional opposition sparked significant local organizing by private Church members acting on their own accord against the amendment in Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, and Virginia. Not all Church members opposed the amendment. Some had spoken publicly in support of the amendment before the Church position was announced.
During the early 1980s the Church took a position on the MX missile controversy. Many Church leaders had long been critical of war and armaments. But others were in favor of preparations for defense. Thus, elected officials could find Church authorities either favoring or opposing defense spending, new weapons systems, and foreign military activities. Utah representatives in Washington tend to promote defense spending, and Utah has a large defense industry.
In 1981, Church President Spencer W. Kimball and his counselors issued a strongly worded letter opposing the deployment of the MX missile in the desert of western Utah and neighboring eastern Nevada. The statement criticized not only the MX missile but also the form of warfare it exemplified: "With the most serious concern over the pressing moral question of possible nuclear conflict, we plead with our national leaders to marshal the genius of the nation to find viable alternatives which will secure at an earlier date and with fewer hazards the protection from possible enemy aggression, which is our common concern" ("First Presidency Statement on Basing of MX Missile," Ensign 11 [June 1981]:76).
The Church has also opposed legalized gambling, including state-run lotteries ("Church Opposes Government-Sponsored Gambling," Ensign 16 [Nov. 1986]:104-105), and has made moral arguments against liberalizing access to alcoholic beverages.
Arrington, Leonard J., and Davis Bitton. The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints, pp. 243-307. New York, 1979.
Jonas, Frank. "Utah: The Different State." In Politics in the American West, ed. F. Jonas. Salt Lake City, 1969.
Richards, Stephen L. "Awake, Ye Defenders of Zion." IE 54 (Dec. 1951):877-80.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Contemporary American Politics
Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company
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