Monday, February 13, 2012

Mormons and Utah Political Partisanship (Part Three). A Crowded Meeting at BYU

This is the third installment in a three-part series on Mormons and Utah Political Partisanship.

Is Partisanship a Problem?: Perspectives for America and Latter-Day Saints.
January 24th, 2012, BYU. Hosted by BYU's Political Science Department.

BYU's Wilkinson Center room 3380 has a room capacity of 128. I'm pretty sure we broke some fire codes the evening of the panel discussion. It's a small room, I wouldn't really call it an auditorium, although the seats are nailed to the floor. The air was stuffy when I walked in. No ushers, no program, just a bunch of young 20-somethings with backpacks, and several community members (at least a dozen with gray hair). In the aisle, I almost tripped over a crew with filming equipment before taking a seat. I arrived at 3:58 p.m. By 4:03, people were still coming in, but it was standing room only. Clearly, the Poli-Sci Department had underestimated the popularity of the event.
Discussion Moderator:
Richard Davis,
BYU Political Science Professor

I looked around for racial diversity, and found very little. All the panelists were white. As I scanned the audience, I observed only two non-Caucasian faces.

The panel sat in folding chairs (without a table) at the front of the room. They wore clip-on microphones. There seemed to be something wrong with the speakers, because the sound was plastic and echoey. Left to right, the panelists sat in this order: Thomas Alexander (historian), Joe Cannon (Republican), Janette Hales Beckham (Republican), Richard Davis (moderator), Karen Hale (Democrat), Olene Walker (Republican), and Scott Howell (Democrat). It was expressed early on that the panel was chosen because of both their significant role in Utah politics, and the tenacity of their LDS faith.

A little history

The discussion started with Thomas Alexander's historical background on Politics and the LDS Church.  He said that in 1891 the Church leadership broke up the LDS People's Party. At that time, most Mormons, he said, joined the Democrats, because of a prior conflict with the Republican party. Then, because they were concerned about too much partisanship, Church leaders started encouraging some church members to join the Republican party. For a while there was a somewhat equal divide. Alexander said that it has only been since the 1960s that Utah partisanship has favored the Republican party.

Friendship and respect across party lines

The other members of the panel took about 5 minutes each to introduce themselves, and say a few words about the topic of the day. Cannon, Walker, Beckham, and Howell each remarked on the congenial relationship they have had with the other members of the panel, regardless of political party. Hale encouraged the audience to remember that there are good people in both major parties.

Joe Cannon, former chair of the
Utah Republican Party,
CEO of Geneva Steel,
and 1992 U.S. Senate candidate.
Before the meeting got started, I anticipated that panel members would be making statements like this--but what I didn't anticipate was the sincerity of it. As they gave opinions and told stories, knowing looks, and comfortable laughs were shared. It was all very refreshing.
Cannon: This panel we have here doesn't fully represent the rivalry or inability to compromise--the personal angst out there in national and Utah politics. . .  I grew up thinking, you don't have to be wrong for me to be right.
Several panelists criticized political bickering and disrespect.

Cannon said that it feels like the philosophical debating we experience now wasn't part of the Utah political scene he observed in the 1960's. "But now when people don't believe the same thing, they're a little stubborn about it," he said.

Olene Walker (Republican),
former Governor of Utah.
Walker said she perceives that Utah is worse than other states currently where partisan bickering is concerned. "We no longer praise people for working well together," she said, "in my view, that is wrong." She talked about national unity and the principle of democracy: the greatest purpose should be to make the state or country stronger; allegiance to country over allegiance to partisan group. She told a story about visiting an elementary school, and asking the children to define democracy. One child answered, "It means the people rule, and everybody's got to do something." She also criticized the recent Republican presidential debates for getting too personal and not being real discussions about policy.

Howell also had some criticism for the presidential race. He said he disapproves of the bitter rivalry and mudslinging between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

Walker, Howell, and Hale each commented on how the two parties actually came together because of the LDS Church's recent involvement in the new immigration law. I assumed they were talking about House Bill 116, the law that will (in 2013) allow undocumented immigrants living in Utah to obtain legal work status through a state guest worker program.

References to LDS Church leaders' political statements

Thomas Alexander, BYU history
professor emeritus and author of
Mormons in Transition, 1890‐1930.
Alexander said that during a 1916 election, LDS Church president, Joseph F. Smith, and member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Heber J. Grant (who eventually became President Smith's successor), had very differing political views. President Smith, a Republican, had endorsed a candidate named Sutherland. Elder Grant, a Democrat, endorsed William H. King, a candidate who was also an LDS stake president. When King won, Grant was pleased, but President Smith said the election was "a huge blunder." He even called King a "pretentious, pedantic, two-faced democratic infidel" (Mormonism in Transition, page 45.)

I believe I caught Alexander telling this story with a smile, as if to say, there's nothing ironic, or wrong with the prophet and an apostle having strong opposing political views--but, my how times have changed! He mentioned that since David O. McKay (LDS Church president 1951-1970) the Church has maintained a politically neutral stance.

He referred to a controversial 1974 statement made by Ezra Taft Benson, a member of the Twelve Apostles, and active participant in the Republican party, who eventually became President of the Church (in 1985). The way I paraphrased Alexander's quotation of the statement in my notes was, "ETB said he couldn't understand how a good Latter-Day Saint could be a liberal Democrat." Alexander followed up by saying that when Benson became the president of the Church, he refrained from endorsements and political statements; a few other panel members nodded in agreement.

Because I was curious to know the original text and context of the statement, I spent some time on the internet looking for an original source. There were several paraphrasals of the statement on blogs and in comment forums, but none of these contained citations. I eventually found a mainstream secondary news source with the full quotation. It's a scan of an April 4, 1976 article titled, Benson: Will Mormons go political? in a California newspaper called The Modesto Bee. Here's my abridgement:

The partisan statement is clearly one of personal political philosophy rather than an over-the-pulpit mandate for Church members. I like his second quotation here, Benson expresses the Church's politically neutral position, but allows for the possibility that God could reveal something of a political nature to the prophet and apostles by revelation.

Finally, I found two respectable sources citing the original article in which Benson's 1974 interview was reported. It's a Salt Lake Tribune article: "Support for Candidate Possible Some Day, LDS Apostle Says," Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 22,1974, B l.  This is the primary source for the interview according to citations found in a University of Utah master's thesis (History Department), and Chapter 5 of the book, Brigham Young University: House of Faith. I didn't find the text of the SLTrib article online, because their archive doesn't go back that far. However, the way the above sources quote the statement is consistent with the Modesto Bee report.
Scott Howell (Democrat),
former Utah Senate minority leader,
and 2000 U.S. Senate candidate.

There were a couple of personal anecdotes told about Gordon B. Hinckley, LDS Church president from 1995-2008. Walker said at a Christmas party she hosted, she asked Hinckley if he had any advice for her (she was Utah governor at the time.) His response was, "I'll run the church, and you run the state." Howell said that when he was young, he and Hinckley lived in the same neighborhood, and that they used to chat on his porch. He also told a story in which President Hinckley greeted a group of out-of-state Democrats by saying, "I want you to know that we are not a Republican church . . . it does no good to be of one party and against the other."


Alexander introduced his opening remarks with a story about a banquet he attended the week prior. A group of Mormons were talking, and a woman told a joke with the presumption that she was in mono-political company. "If Obama and Biden jumped off a cliff, who would be saved?" The answer: "America!" He said he was disturbed by the disrespectful air of the joke.

The other statements I'm putting in this "Jokes" category were statements made by the panelists intended to make the audience laugh. There was certainly a pattern: jokes that turn the tables by suggesting we imagine that it is the Democratic party, not the Republican party that is thought to be the most righteous, or most popular.

Karen Hale, communications director
for Salt Lake City’s Mayor’s Office,
former state senator and vice‐chair
of the Utah Democratic Party.
Hale said, "Olene [Walker] is proof that you can be a Republican and a good Mormon, too." (This got a big laugh.)

Later, Walker told a story illustrating how the nature of political partisanship has changed over the years. She explained that when her father was prompted by friends to run for legislative office, his response was, "I don't think a Republican could win here in Weber county." (Another big laugh.)

When someone from the audience asked the panel, "Do you feel that liberals feel welcome in the Church?" Howell's response was, "I don't know why they wouldn't, it's the most liberal church in the world!" It was a sort of pun meant to increase acceptance of the term, "liberal" by reminding people that it also connotes generosity. Howell said it a little too enthusiastically, as if he was afraid his audience would not be easily convinced. (The audience laughter this time was less energetic.)

Certainly these panelists meant well. But personally, I find this type of humor awkward. I think Hale and Howell intended to encourage their audience members to think outside the box, and consider their point of view, that, as Howell put it, "I am a Democrat because of my faith, make no bones about it." However, the fact that they were expressing this in joke form, highlights the truth that the GoodMormon=Democrat idea is still considered so culturally backward, it's ironic enough to get a laugh.
Do liberals feel welcome at church?

I want to go over the full response to this question from the audience.

The panelists seemed generally unprepared for it. Walker responded first by remarking that it's hard to know at church who's a liberal and who isn't. She said that as far as she knows they generally are accepted, and that she certainly hopes so.

That's when Howell threw in his "it's the most liberal church in the world" joke. But afterwards, he changed his tone, and shared a story about the teacher of an LDS Sunday school class who used his teaching position to make anti-Democrat statements, and even railed against Howell specifically. Coincidentally, Howell's parents were in that class. They told him what happened, and then told the ward (congregation) leadership. The teacher was released from the calling.

Janette Hales Beckham,
former Utah state representative
and General Young Women’s
President of the LDS Church.
Beckham said she has LDS friends in another state who were belittled by their church peers for supporting President Obama. She expressed her disapprobation.

The panelists didn't spend much time on this subject, because they became pre-occupied with the term, "liberal," itself. Joe Cannon started telling the other panelists that they're not truly liberal. "No, no, you're not a liberal," he said to one of the Democrats. I found this confusing. He said some vague things about Utah and Mormons and liberalism--I think he was trying to say that he thinks Utah Dems are only liberal enough that they would be considered moderates by the rest of the country's standards. I didn't like the way he pronounced the word. It seemed to me he felt that "liberal" meant something bad that he'd never want to accuse his fellow panelists of. I kept waiting for him to define it, but he never got around to a clear definition.

The other panelists seemed just as confused by Cannon as I was. Walker, and Hale responded to in some way defend liberalism, but I marked their hesitant manner. I wondered if they were trying to find a way to disagree with Cannon without sounding argumentative. Olene said that while she's fiscally conservative, she uses the term "liberal" to describe her position on education. And Hale quoted a New Testament scripture about how in answering prayers, God "giveth to all men liberally" as she explained what the term "liberal" means to her. 

The meeting ended, and I was a little disappointed that the issue of liberals/Democrats feeling accepted in Mormon culture wasn't discussed with more depth. (After all, questioning cultural paradigms is the focus of this blog.) But in other ways, I was perfectly content with the manner of the meeting. I was fascinated that unlike the UVU partisanship meeting two weeks prior, this panel discussion had not broken out in debate. It was very pleasant to see both Republicans and Democrats sit and cheerfully agree with each other (for an hour and a half) about the political neutrality of the LDS Church.

This is the third installment in a three-part series on Mormons and Utah Political Partisanship.
Read Part One
Read Part Two

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