The Spiritual Roots of the Democratic Party, conclusion


Some members of the religious right vote purely on one issue: abortion. For them, abortion is the litmus test, and no other issues are important. The Democratic party is perceived as being for abortion; the Republican party is perceived as being against abortion.

Things are not that simple. I talked to one committed Democratic friend of mine, the daughter at the time of a state governor, and asked about her views on abortion. "Everyone is against abortion," she said. "But the controversy is between those who think it is necessary at times, and those who oppose it in all situations."

Some conservative Mormons I've talked to do oppose abortion in all situations. Therefore, they were completely opposed to Democrats who state that there are some difficult situations where a woman may decide to obtain an abortion.

However, those conservative Mormons who oppose abortion in all situations are sometimes surprised to learn that the church itself takes the position that there are certain situations in which abortions may be justified. In 1988, President Hinckley wrote, in the Ensign, "We make allowance in such circumstances as when pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, when the life or health of the mother is judged by competent medical authority to be in serious jeopardy, or when the fetus is known by competent medical authority to have serious defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth. But such instances are rare, and there is only a negligible probability of their occurring. In these circumstances those who face the question are asked to consult with their local ecclesiastical leaders and to pray in great earnestness, receiving a confirmation through prayer before proceeding."[38] The current, 1998 General Handbook of Instructions outlines the same general position.[39]

Much more could be said about this difficult, painful subject, obviously. But many Mormon conservatives may find that they are to the right of their own church on this issue. In addition, we should note that there are a number of moderate Republicans who do not hold to the absolute ban on abortion position. A number of Republican appointees on the Supreme Court cast their votes for Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States -- five were Republican appointees, only two were Democrat appointees, and of the two dissenters, one was Democrat, the other Republican. So you cannot say that even the Republican party is completely anti- abortion. There is a variety of viewpoints within both parties.

Finally, even for those who do hold to a total ban on abortion, if you agree with the Democratic party on such key issues such as rich v. poor, civil rights and the environment, one might suggest that it would be worthwhile to become active in the Democratic party and work for a more balanced position on abortion. Otherwise, you are taking the position that, Yes, I disagree with the Republicans' positions on many important things, rich and poor, civil rights, the environment, education, tobacco companies -- but I'll support all that because they're closer to me on one issue. As was said before, no political party will be a perfect match to the church.

The Politics of Personal Destruction
In modern America, the politics of personal destruction has been used by both parties to attack prominent politicians and appointees on the other side of the aisle. Every time a major appointee has to be voted on by the Senate, the opposing party will relentlessly dig into that appointee's history and background, which is usually a grueling experience for the appointee. To a certain extent, looking into a prospective leader's character is a necessary part of all Democratic politics -- we must view our leaders carefully before we elect them to office. Nevertheless, the politics of personal destruction has become a typical weapon favored by Republicans of the far right. Republican Joe McCarthy, who supplied us with the noun "McCarthyism," is a cautionary figure, whose career, ending in his own downfall after he had destroyed the careers of many others, warns us of the terrible consequences of extremism focused toward personal attack.[40] Birchism, which influenced such powerful Mormons as Ezra Taft Benson and Ernest Wilkinson, is a direct descendant of McCarthyism. (In fairness, I should mention that President Eisenhower, a Republican, helped engineer McCarthy's downfall, when McCarthy began attacking members of Eisenhower's administration.)

In our generation, Newt Gingrich made the personal attack a central element of his political strategy. Gingrich had a member of his staff whose full time job was to try to find any possible negative information about the private life of Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright. Gingrich would then take any crumbs this staffer would come up with, and contact journalists and repeatedly pressure them to use and publicize the information. He once advised other Republicans to speak of Democrats as "pathetic" "sick," and "corrupt."[41]

Because of the Republican party's close alliance with conservative, Bible-belt Christianity,[42] if sexual scandal can be found in members of the Democratic party, publicizing it is a natural strategy to use. So in the last decade, the great majority of the Republican party tried to remove Clinton from office on a perjury charge relating to an affair. (Gingrich, incidentally, was instrumental in the beginnings of this attempt.) While stating that they were concerned only about the perjury charge, Republicans widely publicized Clinton's sexual relations with a White House intern. The Starr report was severely criticized for its graphic emphasis on sexual details. (Kenneth Starr has since admitted that this sexual emphasis was probably a mistake.) The votes for and against impeachment and removal from office were very partisan, an example of how polarizing the politics of personal destruction can be.[43]

In the Republican primaries of the last election, after John McCain had won early victories, conservative supporters of Bush carried on a vicious, widespread telephone campaign in which they accused McCain of having an illegitimate black child. (The truth was that McCain and his wife had adopted a child from Bangla Desh.) The profound injustice of this telephone campaign was that McCain and his wife were attacked by untruthful conservative "Christians," including a professor at Bob Jones University, for the McCains' Christian, compassionate act of adoption. Bush staffers disavowed any involvement with the rumors, but this telephone campaign was very advantageous to Bush, helping him to win the South Carolina primary and turn back the McCain challenge.[44]

How does this issue relate to Christ's teachings? Expressing disapproval of sexual sin might seem to be a solidly Biblical religious act. However, those who have read Jesus's teachings carefully will immediately understand that denouncing sinners was not his central emphasis, though he did preach repentance. The gospels do not record Jesus delivering blistering denunciations of sexual sin. In fact, Jesus was known for his compassion for sexual sinners, and his mingling with sinners, while criticizing religious leaders in Jerusalem who advocated almost a loathing for sinners, and denounced Jesus for associating with them. We remember Jesus saving the adulterous woman from stoning, and his compassion for her contrasts with her accusers' thirst for public punishment. He stated that he did not condemn her, though he encouraged her to repent.

In fact, Jesus' most impassioned denunciations were not directed at obvious sinners, adulterers, tax-collectors, Hellenizers -- they were directed at solid members of the true religion who often kept the outward commandments quite fully, but who directed their inner religious feelings toward condemning those they felt did not keep the commandments. For Jesus, those who were judgmental in a religious context were much worse than non-religious sinners. Their judgmental nature was a sign of their deep lack of authentic love. (And of course, he taught that the heart of the law was love of God and fellow humans, even of our "enemies.")

So Jesus's teachings actually would turn us away from the politics of personal destruction, the tendency to focus on personal attack taken to extremes. This noticeable tradition in the Republican party, linked as it is with conservative Christian groups, paradoxically actually removes it farther from the gospel.

It is worth repeating that some Democrats have also used the politics of personal destruction, and many Republicans have avoided this political strategy. In the Senate, moderate Republicans refused to vote for Clinton's removal, and because the Senate vote was otherwise so divided along party lines, this prevented him from being removed from office. Furthermore, examination of a candidate's background and character is necessary. Nevertheless, the politics of personal destruction -- and a certain related strain of religious extremism and judgmentalism -- has been more characteristic of Republicans than of Democrats.

The Two Party System
One reason for many Mormons' attraction to the Republican party is a tendency to believe absolutely in the "one true church" -- which translates into political terms as "one true party." Some nineteenth-century Mormon leaders, during the "theocratic" era of Utah's history, denounced the two-party system, stating that Satan's plan in the pre-existence was the beginning of the two-party system.

However, when the church assimilated into American society beginning in the 1890s, it changed from a one party church (leaning toward the Democrats) to a church advocating political pluralism, and church leaders pledged not to dictate to its members in politics. Because Mormons were so predominantly Democrat (Republicans had been loathed as anti-polygamy legislators and prosecutors), church leaders had to vigorously campaign to get a recognizable number of Mormons to become Republican. Some prominent church leaders became Republican and openly campaigned for that party, now that polygamy had been renounced. A healthy two- party political framework in Utah was necessary to show that church leaders had withdrawn from trying to control secular politics. The shadow of theocracy had to be banished before many Americans would allow Utah to join the United States.

In Utah, today, though the the church has a policy of political neutrality, there is no healthy, two-party political framework, as church members overwhelmingly support the increasingly conservative Republican party. Among the Church leadership, there are a few Democrats, but only a few; Hugh B. Brown stated that he was almost a minority of one as a Democrat among the General Authorities.[45] There are complex reasons for Utah's overwhelming allegiance to the Republican party -- it is a Western state, generally non-urban, comparatively sparsely populated, and such states have tended to vote Republican in recent years. But Utah's Mormon conservatism has certainly combined with these factors to make Utah almost the most extreme example of Republican dominance. One remembers Clinton running third in a recent presidential election, before the Lewinsky scandal, for instance.

There are great dangers to Mormonism in this close alliance of Mormons with only one political party (seriously proposed by some church leaders such as Bill Wright as the "the one true party," with the Democratic party by implication viewed as Satanic). Most importantly, this one party environment makes the LDS Church look as if it is not committed to political pluralism, or to the separation of church and state. When the church does take political stands -- as it has in the case of opposing the Equal Rights Amendment seeking to give equal rights to women, or in opposing marriage rights for homosexuals, which many women and homosexuals perceive as civil rights issues -- it looks as if it is using the pronounced religious conservatism of its members to further a right-leaning political agenda.[46]

For instance, the last complete presidential administration was Democratic. In the case of the present, Bush, administration, the majority of Americans voted for the Democratic candidate. Crucial, populous states such as California and New York lean toward the Democrats. Let's say that a tendency toward the Democratic party continues to grow in America, and Democrats recapture the House and the White House. This is not at all impossible. In the case of a state such as Utah, in which there is no seriously competitive Republican/Democratic interplay, Utah would be out in the cold until its Democrats had an authentic presence and voice.

In a recent interview, Democratic Senator Harry Reid spoke of the intensely negative reaction he received from many Mormon Republicans who have attacked him as being disloyal to the LDS faith because of his strong Democratic background and commitments.[47] After mentioning how Democratic legislation has helping the American family, he stated bluntly that during the Clinton administration, when the Church needed some help at the White House, they didn't go to Orrin Hatch, a Republican, and moreover, a Republican on the far right. Instead they came to him, a Democrat.

And again, we can mention the now-famous interview with the Salt Lake Tribune that Democratic General Authority Marlin Jensen gave in which he stated that church leaders are concerned that there is not a healthy two-party dialogue in Utah -- i.e., they would like more Mormons to be Democrats.[48] While some Mormon Republicans have accused Jensen of breaking the church's policy of neutrality by giving this interview, I have been told that he was directed by highly placed church leaders to give it.

Finally, I should mention the late Eugene England's wise and insightful essay, "On Saving The Constitution, or Why Some Utah Mormons Should Become Democrats,"[49] which emphasizes the advisability of a strong two party system among Mormons. He quotes an 1891 letter written by the First Presidency headed by Wilford Woodruff : "The more evenly balanced the parties become the safer it will be for us [Mormons] in the security of our liberties; and . . . our influence for good will be far greater than it possibly could be were either party overwhelmingly in the majority." This unhealthy situation, one party overwhelmingly in the majority, has been realized by modern Utah Mormons. In Utah today, the Republican/Democrat split is dangerously close to the Mormon/anti-Mormon split in 1880s Utah. Unless Mormons create a strong presence in the Democratic party, it is natural that non-Mormons will gravitate toward and control the Utah Democratic party.[50]

While directing Elder Jensen to give an interview advocating a healthy two party political balance in Utah is a step in the right direction, it would also help if the church hierarchy would call a significant number of recognizable, activist Democrats among the highest ranks of General Authorities.

Some might accuse me of portraying the Democrats as the "one true party," and thus leaning toward Bill Wright's mistake on the Democratic side. Actually, I am deeply committed to the central issues I've outlined here -- compassion for the poor, civil rights, preserving the environment, education. I will support whichever party is closest to a strong position on these issues. I believe there are many Republicans who also care about those issues, but I believe that the Democratic party is more sensitive to those issues at the present time. The Republican party could change back toward the center. It has a tradition of reform, of populist, progressive thought that is represented in the present political landscape by John McCain and other moderate Republicans, often from the northeast. McCain consciously harks back to the Teddy Roosevelt tradition of reform. I agree with Republican outlooks on fiscal conservatism, concern for law and order, a strong military, belief that work and self-initiative should be a key element of any welfare system. I support and admire capitalism and the military, generally speaking.

So the Republican party is complex, with contrasting, even conflicting elements. Unfortunately, I believe that leadership of the Republican party today -- Bush, Rove and Cheney, Ashcroft, Hastert, DeLay and Armey, Lott, Rehnquist -- is not authentically concerned about those core religious issues: compassion for the poor, civil rights, the environment, education. In fact, their strikingly bad record on these issues has created a contrast between Democrat and Republican parties that is particularly stark in our generation, certainly during the George W. Bush administration.

Prominent Mormon Democrats
The Mormon church in Utah today is predominantly Republican. Nevertheless, there have been and are some prominent Mormons who have been or are Democrats. Following is a short, incomplete list of some of them:

Church President Heber J. Grant[51] started out as an ardent Democrat, but came to dislike FDR intensely; however, I do not believe he ever became a Republican.[52] Among Democratic First Presidency counselors have been Anthony R. Ivins, a passionate Democrat[53]; Charles W. Penrose, equally passionate; John Rex Winder; John Willard Young; Stephen L. Richards; Henry D. Moyle; Hugh B. Brown, another ardent Democrat; and his nephew, N. Eldon Tanner (who was instrumental in bringing the church back to financial stability).

Apostles who have been Democrats are poet and historian Orson F. Whitney; Franklin D. Richards; Moses Thatcher; Abraham H. Cannon; Stephen L. Richards; Melvin J. Ballard; and Joseph F. Merrill.

In addition, there was Seventy president, theologian, and historian, B.H. Roberts,[54] whose example greatly influenced Hugh B. Brown; other Democrat Presidents of the Seventy were Edward Stevenson; Jacob Gates; Rulon S. Wells; Charles H. Hart; and Antoine Ridgeway Ivins.

Historian Juanita Brooks was a committed Democrat, and I've been told Hugh Nibley is also a Democrat. As has been mentioned, labor activist Esther Peterson and Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, were Democrats.

Among the present-day General Authorities, the following are Democrats: Seventy Marlin Jensen; (and here's a surprise) Apostle Boyd K. Packer[55]; First Presidency counselor James E. Faust.[56]

Among present day LDS politicians, Harry Reid, from Nevada, is a powerful presence in the Senate, a lieutenant of Tom Daschle, who played a part in convincing Jim Jeffords to leave the Republican party, thus swinging the Senate to Democratic control. As a fellow Mormon, I personally am very proud of his many accomplishments.

I will close with a statement by one of the church's great orators, Apostle Orson F. Whitney, who in a political rally explained how he chose to became a Democrat: "I sat down a student and I rose up a Democrat," he said, to cheers and applause. A newspaper reported: "He spoke eloquently of the Democratic theory of the rights of the common people as opposed to the Republican idea of centralized power in the hands of the [upper] classes; and said he believed with all his soul that God formed this government for the whole people and not for a favored few; he believed the great fear of the future was the swollen money power, a tyranny worse to be dreaded than a tyrant king, and it was because he believed that the Democratic ideas were opposed to that tyranny that was one of the first things that attracted him to Democracy."[57] Prophetic words. I hope Mormons increasingly realize that helping the poor; the cause of civil rights; improving education; and protecting the environment are core moral, religious issues. If they do so, perhaps one day Mormons will be known as predominantly Democrats, instead of as predictably Republican. Some may think I'm being overoptimistic, but I have that idealistic vision. Until then, I would be satisfied with an authentic two party dialogue in the state of Utah. Thank you.

back to home