Mormon Church Gives Democrats Hope In Conservative Utah

Statement by church elder saying that good Mormons can be Democrats may give the party a much-needed boost.

Millie Peterson grew up as a Mormon in the old mining town of Magna - one of the few stridently Democratic strongholds in conservative Utah. It wasn't until she moved to suburban Salt Lake City that she realized just how unusual a Democratic Mormon was.

"I had heard a few comments from people who said you have to be a Republican to be LDS," says the state senator, referring to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "But I'd never heard anything in church until I moved here."

Then, when Ms. Peterson heard her local church official urge the congregation to vote for two Republican candidates, she felt the message was clear: Republicans were the moral choice.

In a state where the church wields an enormous amount of influence in daily life - 70 percent of Utahns are Mormons - such political perceptions can become gospel. And that's why a recent comment by church elder Marlin Jensen, saying that the church regrets any perception of a "one-party church," or that a Democrat cannot be a good Mormon, is creating a stir.

"I think we hoped for this and prayed for [some support] and then the church came out with this," says Ted Wilson, a former mayor of Salt Lake City and a Democrat. "In a way, it's an answer to our prayers."

Mr. Wilson, who now teaches at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, says Republicans must be sobered by Elder Jensen's remarks. He predicts a 2 percent to 3 percent swing on the ballot this year - a small but significant shift for a party in ruin. "This might inspire a lot of Mormon Democrats who have gone into the closet to come out and be more supportive of their party," he says.

Widely considered the most Republican state in the union, Utah last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate (Lyndon Johnson) in 1964. More recently, Bill Clinton came in third, behind George Bush and Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential race.

Being a Republican stronghold may be an asset in a GOP-dominated Congress, but Joe Hatch, chairman of the Salt Lake County Democratic Party, argues that it costs the state.

"To the extent that this state is not competitive on a two-party basis, that hurts us in the national arena," he says. When a base closure or nonstop Salt Lake-to-London flight comes up for debate, he says, Republicans figure Utahns will support them regardless of their stands. And Democrats figure there's no point in expending political capital on Utah.

Observers here say that the Mormon Church is cognizant of its role in a larger and more diverse Mormon community that is growing fastest in developing countries. If it hitches its wagon to one American political party, it could limit its influence.

This isn't the first time the church has made a ripple in state politics. A century ago, the church split its congregation in two, making half Democrats and half Republicans, in an effort to show good faith in the two-party system and achieve statehood. Then, some 30 years ago, Ezra Taft Benson, a former agriculture secretary and high church official who eventually became president of the church, said it would be difficult for a good Mormon to be a Democrat.

Since then, the church's public stands on moral issues closely paralleled Republican positions.

In the early 1970s, the Mormon Church spoke out against the Equal Rights Amendment, and later weighed in against abortion. "The stand on choice cut against a lot of active LDS Democrats," Mr. Hatch says. "It is a difficult issue for them."

Indeed, local church leaders still have an enormous influence on politics. Recently, mid-level church leaders claimed moral and political high ground in pushing the repeal of a Salt Lake City nondiscrimination ordinance that included provisions about sexual orientation - an ordinance sponsored by Democrats.

Many here say that Jensen's statement will not result in anything like the church's mass division in pre-statehood days, when the Mormon flock was small, cohesive, and more deferential to their religious leaders.

So Democratic candidates like state Senator Peterson, up for reelection in November, can only wait and see if the shift produces votes. "If it's a beginning, it's a very interesting beginning," says Hatch of Jensen's remarks. "If it's the end, it's going to be a very interesting footnote."

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