Dr. Gregory Prince is CEO of Soft Cell Antimicrobials, following a career in pediatric infectious diseases research. He has authored four books on Mormon history, including Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood (1995) and Gay Rights and the Mormon Church: Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences (2019).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) spent the first half of its existence (beginning in 1830) deeply involved in politics, as church members frequently found themselves at the hostile end of government action that ultimately caused them to retreat to the Great Basin merely to survive—and to do so by establishing a theocracy, with Brigham Young simultaneously serving as church president and governor of Utah Territory.
Following three years of contentious debate in the U.S. Senate as the twentieth century began, involving the contested seating of LDS apostle Reed Smoot, the church largely withdrew from partisan political activism. In recent decades, church leaders have taken great care not to endorse the candidates of any party.
Nonetheless, Utah is viewed as one of the “reddest” states in the country, largely because members of the LDS Church in that state are overwhelmingly Republican. Former Utah congressman and church member Jason Chaffetz was one of the most strident foes of the Obama administration, and as chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he held nonstop hearings in an attempt to discredit it—but not a single hearing once the Trump administration came into power. Similarly, church member and U.S. Senator Mike Lee is one of the most reliably pro-Trump voices in Congress. Given the deep influence that their (and my) religion has over nearly all aspects of their lives, one might assume that similar dots might easily be connected for other church members, the official silence of church leaders notwithstanding.
In sharp contrast, however, are two other LDS political figures. Retired Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada) rose to the position of Senate Majority Leader, the highest legislative position ever occupied by a member of his faith tradition. A devout convert to Mormonism—all five of his sons were married in LDS temples—he has also been a lifelong Democrat. While in office, he did not hesitate to say publicly, on one occasion when I was in the room, “I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon.”
Indeed, membership of the LDS Church was solidly Democratic from the time Utah became a state in 1896—not surprising since the other major party, the Republicans, came into existence in 1856 on a platform of abolishing the “twin relics of barbarism,” slavery and polygamy. The Republican onslaught did not wane until the church renounced polygamy in 1890 as a condition for statehood. Only decades later, largely under the influence of the right-wing politics of apostle (and future church president) Ezra Taft Benson, who served as secretary of agriculture under Dwight Eisenhower for eight years, did the majority of church members move to the right, a transition essentially completed by the 1970s. So, with the occasional exception of a Harry Reid, Latter-day Saints are likely to follow, without questioning, the party favored by the large majority of church members, even while their religious leaders shy away from overt partisan endorsements. But not Mitt Romney.
A personal disclosure: In 2012, during the presidential campaign when Romney was the Republican nominee, I was openly critical of what became known as his “47% speech,” and I stated publicly that Romney did not represent the face of Mormonism. Yet, while I remain critical of that speech, I stand in firm support of the courageous and unprecedented stand that Romney recently took, when he became the only U.S. senator in history to vote to convict a president of his own political party.
In an address on the floor of the Senate prior to casting his historic vote, Romney made it clear that his religious convictions, which come from a much deeper place in his soul than the litany of belief statements so often linked to faith, guided his decision to defy his party and the president:
“As a Senator-juror, I swore an oath, before God, to exercise ‘impartial justice.’ I am a profoundly religious person. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential. I knew from the outset that being tasked with judging the President, the leader of my own party, would be the most difficult decision I have ever faced. I was not wrong.…
"My promise before God to apply impartial justice required that I put my personal feelings and biases aside. Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented, and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.
"I am aware that there are people in my party and in my state who will strenuously disapprove of my decision, and in some quarters, I will be vehemently denounced. I am sure to hear abuse from the President and his supporters. Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?”
Romney was, indeed, “vehemently denounced,” to the point of receiving numerous death threats in the aftermath of the speech. And yet, his Mormon faith allowed—indeed, compelled—him to stand up to critics that included the president of the United States. A prominent, progressive commentator wrote to me regarding Romney’s speech, “It was one of the greatest senate moments I’ve ever seen and definitely the greatest Republican senate moment I’ve ever seen.” And this time, it was the face of Mormonism. Perhaps it will inform others of his faith as they decide whom to support in a presidential election that likely will present religious and moral contrasts unlike any seen previously in our lifetime.