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In Utah's Covert Community of Democrats, Faith And Politics Align

Posted: 04/11/2012 2:04 pm

The Utah Democratic Party has an official caucus for Latter Day Saint (LDS) Democrats. This caucus is proof that not only Democrats but LDS Democrats exist in Utah, and that the LDS Church is home to more than just conservative political sentiment.

It remains true, however, that Utah on the whole is a breeding ground for conservatives. According to a Gallup Poll of Americans' self-identified political ideologies, Utah is one of only three states in which a majority of pollees identify as conservatives. The only state with more conservatives is Mississippi. The "conservative advantage" in Utah, moreover, is 37 percent, meaning that there are 37 percent more conservatives than liberals.

Utah's conservative disposition can be explained by its sizeable Mormon population. According to Pew Research Center, 60 percent of Mormons report a conservative political ideology whereas just 37 percent of the general U.S. population identify as conservative. The LDS Church ranks as the most conservative religious tradition in the U.S.

Given these facts about Utah, what is the state of the LDS Democratic caucus?

"The LDS Democratic caucus has nearly 800 members," says Craig Janis, director of outreach for the caucus and a national delegate candidate who has pledged support for President Obama. Considering the caucus was founded in October 2011, it is experiencing rapid growth.

Just as surprising is the face of the caucus. Although "there's a wide range of ages in the caucus, it's actually heavier on older people," says Janis. Politically active youth tend to caucus more frequently with college Democratic groups than with subgroups of the State Democratic Party, which explains the demographics of the LDS caucus. However it is undeniable that a number of older conservatives within the Church are switching teams.

"The LDS Democrats' purpose is to provide a social support system for LDS people who are leaving the Republican Party," says Janis. Indeed, Janis sees a trend within the church, especially but not only among young members, toward the Democratic Party.

LDS Democrats like Janis say they are Democrats because, not in spite of, their faith. This is the message Janis wants the caucus to convey.

"The LDS Party is a natural fit for LDS People. We are Democrats because of our LDS values, and we think that there are a lot of LDS people who are Democrats at heart but just don't realize it yet."

How Church members are coming to realize the politics of their hearts lends credence to the notion that there is a covert Democratic community within the Church. People in the Church tell Janis and his caucus quite often that they're surprised to find an LDS caucus because they believe they're the only Democrats in their ward. Unbeknownst to them, Janis says, is that "half the people on their block say the same thing."

If all LDS Democrats outed themselves on Sunday at church, they'd realize their neighborhoods are filled with Democrats, he suggests. Yet Democratic members of the Church fail to recognize, because of the undercover nature of the Democratic community, that they constitute a sizeable minority in wards across Utah.

How, exactly, the Church's teachings coincide with the Democratic Party is even more of a mystery than LDS Democrats themselves, but Janis and the LDS Democratic caucus are seeking to shed light on the issue.

Janis believes he has a duty, as a religious person, to follow Christ's example in his public and private life. Other LDS Democrats share in this sentiment. In the caucus' eyes, compassion and equality are the qualities Christ most exemplified. These qualities should find their way into social institutions, Janis says, and "Only one political party seems to care at all" about instituting them. That party is the Democratic Party, he says, and that's the reason some members of the Church are Democrats.

What's more, issues such as gay rights coincide nicely with the Church's emphasis on non-discrimination. And while Janis concedes that many Democrats disagree with the Church's position on gay marriage -- it argues for an understanding of the institution as strictly between one man and one woman -- and that some LDS Democrats diverge with the Party on this issue, he "finds it hard to believe gay marriage ought to be the single issue that defines how a Mormon should vote."

While religion does, and should, inform the voting decisions of church-goers, reasonable pluralism in the public sphere precludes legislating morality for those whose "baptismal and temple covenants" differ sharply from those of Mormons, Janis says.

"We live as we do because we choose to, and we should not force others to comply with our moral beliefs" on issues such as gay marriage.

If the Church aligns neatly with Democratic ideals, why is it that the majority of Mormons, as indicated by Gallup and Pew's research, are conservative?

The sharp move toward conservatism, Janis says, began in the latter half of the 20th century when "a few particularly vocal church leaders...were consumed by fear of Soviet Communism." This is a well-documented historical fact. These same leaders perceived social liberalization--such as sexual liberation, women's rights, the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement--as proof that Communist ideology had infiltrated U.S. communities.

The fact that the Democratic Party embraced similar social liberalization and economic justice policies alienated Mormons from the Party. The Democrats' loose association with Communist precepts, that is, if one can even call the association loose, made Mormons uncomfortable self-identifying as Democrats, and gave birth to the now prevalent conservative disposition of the Church.

The GOP of the same era "actively cultivated these wedge issues"--that is, played off the fears of the nation--in order to win the hearts and minds of religious traditions, Janis says. Voters with comprehensive worldviews that consisted primarily in their religion "became single-issue voters, electing people who didn't exhibit Christ-like concern for compassion and equality but who vocally professed to be pro-life or pro-traditional-family or anti-communist."

2012 is an exciting time for Mormons, as Mitt Romney is the favorite to win the Republican nomination. Yet, fueled by the fact that Romney is a Mormon and Santorum and Gingrich are Catholics--both religions are underrepresented in the halls of power and have been historically targeted with criticism in politics--religious issues, such as the separation of church and state and the relevance of religion as a measure by which to judge candidates, have come to the fore of public discourse.

Rick Santorum, for instance, recently said that JFK's speech on the separation of church and state made him want to throw up. Janis, and perhaps the LDS Church on the whole, although Janis does not claim to speak for anyone but himself, believes Santorum's fundamentalism is pernicious. "[Santorum] and those who agree with him seem to think that their interpretation of religion needs to be forced on others, and that their biblically inspired voices ought to be privileged in the marketplace of ideas," Janis says. He worries this fundamentalist school of religious thought is resonating strongly with some Mormons.

The kind of society the Founders sought to create, however--one governed by a live and let live creed--precludes the idea that any religion's "claim to modern revelation trumps the thoughts, concerns and ideas of all who disagree" with it. The LDS Church and the Democratic Party best reflect the live-and-let-live credo of the Founders, especially with regard to religious freedom.

Similarly, Orrin Hatch, who's in a fierce intraparty battle with Tea Party-backed challengers, recently claimed President Obama is going to make Romney's LDS faith an issue in the general election.

Janis believes Hatch was looking for a fight. Those who make religion an issue for the purposes of division are "bigots in their own right," Janis says.

"The president...is a good man, and he has seen more than his fair share of attacks on his own faith. He has repeatedly stated that he doesn't see Mormonism as a valid way of attacking Romney, and I've been told by members of his staff that they feel the same way," Janis says. Janis believes it is not surprising that a conservative was first to throw a religious barb. It is Republican Party, he says, that invokes religion most often in public discourse. If its members showed the same respect for the U.S.'s religious plurality and diversity that Democrats show, attacks on religion would be nonexistent. For Janis and LDS Democrats, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, freedom in religion and freedom from it.

Political judgments, however, may easily give way to common religious ties. A recent poll published in The Salt Lake Tribune indicated Romney is popular even among LDS Democrats. The poll is not an anomaly, says Janis: It is not uncommon for Mormons to support Mormon candidates regardless of political affiliations and the ideologies that accompany such affiliations. "And I don't think it's necessarily bad, though I would caution that it should only be one factor in considering a candidate, not the single characteristic that determines an LDS person's vote," Janis says, suggesting that while there's nothing wrong with general excitement among Church members that Romney share their religious faith, excitement and single-issue voting are distinct, and the one should not become the other.

Despite there being a prominent Mormon candidate for President and a Mormon Majority Leader in the Senate, Janis says Mormons are generally misunderstood in U.S. communities. "We have a unique subculture that we cannot reasonably expect outsiders to understand, and it shouldn't surprise us that [others] are sometimes suspicious of us, and that they have erroneous views of our faith."

But for Janis, this proves only that the U.S.'s "values of equality for all, including for unpopular minorities, are incredibly important," and that reasonable pluralism is as imperative as ever.

Adds Janis, "[t]o those who are misinformed about us...visit Church on a Sunday and get to know us. And I'd urge Mormons to step outside of the Church social scene a bit more often so that we can be active participants in changing those erroneous perceptions."

Perhaps the burgeoning LDS Democratic Caucus is the perfect such nexus of dialogue, wherein members of the LDS faith and others eager to be a part of religious and political diversity can engage, listen and learn from one another.

The LDS Democratic caucus, like many other people and associations in the U.S., believes the U.S. constitution was divinely inspired, and that ensuring the rights and freedoms of everyone is incumbent upon us.

They're not so different, after all.

 
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