On the left: pioneer ancestors and the International Church

To continue with the international perspective I was asked to give, here is one post that opens the door to some political debate… I hope it will not deviate too much from the questions asked at the end!

Two items to set the perspective:

1) First, the vast majority of Mormon pioneers who came from Europe in the 19th century were people with leftist traits. Mostly workmen and craftsmen, dedicated to social justice, inspired by egalitarian dreams, they turned their back to an exploitative society. In Mormonism they found this galvanizing combination of religious conviction and communalist ideals (I said communalist, not communist). Letters and journals of the time testify to that outlook. Dirk Exalto, a Dutchman who converted to Mormonism in 1863, expressed it in these terms: “The lamentations of the workmen are crying out to God’s throne. The rich will moan and wail. But among the Saints in Utah is salvation. There equality reigns, there is love. There everyone is a workman!”

Perhaps the very colonization of the Mormon West, the United Order experiments and the Cooperative Mercantile Institutions, would not have been possible without this dedication to both religious and socialist principles – “socialist” in its original meaning of an organized society working for the common good of all. It laid the basis for explicit political action: “During the 1890s to the 1920s, the Utah Social Democratic Party, which became part of the Socialist Party of America in 1901, elected about 100 socialists to state offices in Utah. An estimated 40% of Utah Socialists were Mormon.” (Wordiq.com).

The reasons why the Mormon West, in a relatively short period, moved away from this leftist legacy and became culturally antithetical to a narrowly defined “socialism”, have been well documented, as well as the further shift to a presently strong rightist domination. Utah is now one of the most conservative, Republican states in the U.S. The principles of capitalism and of highly effective people ensure widely different levels of affluence. Are pioneer forefathers turning in their graves?

2) Second, we can safely say that at present in the International Church the majority of both longstanding members and more recent converts, inasmuch as they are ideologically engaged, are still more on the left in the political spectrum. This phenomenon has been documented in various studies (one of mine was published in BYU Studies). People on the right, clinging to their traditional values, patriotic and loyal to their own religious past, are not so likely to be converted to this outlandish Mormonism. People abroad who join the Church are often from working classes or from socially disadvantaged groups. And/Or they have personalities open to change and to new commitments. As I have experienced over the years, the more knowledgeable converts were often already committed to environmental issues, social justice, world citizenship and/or peace movements before joining the Church. After a time they start wondering why these topics seem to be lacking in Church magazines, manuals and conference talks.

It explains why converts from abroad visiting Utah or discovering its idiosyncrasies over the Internet, may be surprised, to put it mildly, to learn that their co-religionists on the Wasatch front are not only overwhelmingly Republican as such, but that quite a few advocate even stronger far-right ideas on certain issues. It clashes with these converts’ perception of the tolerant, peace-promoting, internationalistic dimension of Mormonism as they have accepted it. If they settle in Utah, many Mormons from abroad with such a leftist background, learn to seal their lips for they quickly realize that any reasonable discussion is impossible and that they will be ostracized when speaking out.

My focus of this post would be: what does this difference in political tendency mean for the relation between the heart of Mormondom in Utah (outspoken Republican and sometimes even ultra-conservative) and the rest of the Mormon world (even in all its heterogeneity, still leaning more on the left)? Inconsequential? Or does Utah’s present lack of political diversity represent a serious handicap, not only to Utah itself, but also to the rest of the Mormon world and to the image of the Church worldwide?

As Elder Marlin Jensen said a few years ago, with the apparent backing of the Church: “It’s not in our best interest to be known as a one-party church.” Indeed, not in Utah nor in the U.S. in general, and certainly not in the rest of the world. When the Church is perceived abroad as being part of (ultra) right-wing America, it is not helpful for missionary work, nor for the feeling of belonging of members abroad. It also becomes a stumbling block in the relation with foreign governments, leading to various restrictions for the Church. In the long run, when one looks at anti-American developments in the world, it could even become detrimental to the safety of non-American Mormons.

65 comments for “On the left: pioneer ancestors and the International Church

  1. Wilfired, my short, terribly oversimplistic, yet I think fundamentally accurate answer to the first part of your post would be as follows: for better or worse, the United States lacked both the ideological resources and the material conditions which allowed socialist and social democrat parties and political movements to flourish as they have in the rest of Europe and the developing world. The result is that, especially post-WWII, the left in the United States lacked any truly strong connection to the working class mentality, with the unfortunate result that the “left” party in the U.S. (i.e., the Democrat party, though its platform is a poor excuse for leftism) had no real moorings to prevent it from being captured and turned into an vehicle for a purely social and cultural progressivism, in terms of abortion and any number of other moral causes. The strong disposition against contemporary liberalism among American Mormons can’t be reduced solely to this (there is also the dynamic of the church having taken root in the Intermountain West, and the way anti-communist feelings played out among that population in the 1950s-1970s, as well as other factors), but I think, in the end, it is the primary factor. I doubt our pioneer ancestors are turning in their graves over Utah’s overwhelmingly Republicanism; I think their tearing their hair out in frustration over the fact that there is no real communitarian, social democratic, economically progressive, worker’s movement in the U.S., and that instead what parades under the banner of “liberalism” in America has almost everything to do with abortion rights and no-fault divorce, and almost nothing to do with class empowerment and equality.

  2. From my experience in England, Mormons are more diverse politically, but I’m not sure there is a majority that leans left.

    I served in Austria as a missionary. I remember speaking to a convert (he joined the church in Amsterdam, by the way!) who was HORRIFIED to learn that the majority of American Mormons were Republican. He had been reading in the Ensign where they publish details of LDS Congressmen. For him Republican = evil, nasty, un-Christian, selfish, environment-hating, rich, hyper-Capitalists. Of course, this is a stereotype, so please don’t flame me for it. But for him, all of this was the opposite of his own world-view. He just could not understand it.

    Elder Jensen is right. The church hardly ever makes the news in Europe, and when it does it is usually negative. Imagine my own horror when the BBC ran a story on Michael Moore’s controversial visit to UVSC. It was reported in terms of Utah’s ultra-conservatism. This kind of stuff doesn’t play well.

    In the interest of PR, we need some famous, faithful Mormon liberals. Anyone want to step up to the plate?

  3. For one example of what Brother Wilfried is concerned with losing, try a Google search on the name “Rhodakanaty.” Then as you look at such link titles as “Rhodakanaty y la formacion del pensamiento socialista en Mexico” consider that that man was the first elder ordained in Mexico. His first encounter with the Church was a booklet of Book of Mormon passages that had included with it a description of the United Order.

    Sharing the gospel in Mexico began with a mass mailing of those items to prominent Mexicans. The socialist Plotino Rhodakanaty set up a Mormon study group and wrote back to the Church. Moses Thatcher was sent to Mexico City and established a branch with Rhodakanaty as branch president. Rhodakanaty did not continue with the Church, but that was where it started.

  4. Is it possible that Mormon ideaologies have stayed the same over the years while those of mainstream America have moved to the left? This would make the average Mormon seem more conservative by comparison.

  5. Let’s not for get that those who left the continent in search of relgious freedom and established the moors of colonization in the new world were also considered leftist radicals.

    Lehi was, no doubt, considered a leftist radical. However, the pattern that insues after he establishes his people in the promised land is, generally, one of maintenance. I.e., conservatism in the purest sense.

    I think the problem with conservatism in the Chuch is that it conflates the preservation of, or right to personal affluence and position with the principle of moral agency. Therefore, the mormon conservative can find him/herself in support of those ideologies which cause social stratification.

    My critique is generalized. There is just as much cause to mourn because of liberalism.

  6. I will bet good money, if it wasn’t against Mormon morality, that many LDS in the United States lean more “left” in economic and social beliefs than you might think. You just need to ask the right questions. I for one have heard many statements by “Utah Republican” Mormons who aren’t running for office that they would be Democrat if it wasn’t for the anti-religious, relativistic views of that party.

    All that needs to be done to tip the scale is a kinder, gentler, religiously energized, and less in your face Democratic Party. That doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon.

    However, to be fair, over time the social conservative Mormons have also embraced the economic views of the Republican Party much as the same has happened with the Democratic Party followers.

  7. Many of the people commenting here are missing the connection between a progressive sense of a need for economic equality — a truly Christian ideal — and the sense that the government at any level needs to regulate economic equality. We can all agree that the scriptures discuss the need for helping the poor, the sick, the weak, the widows. But we cannot agree that any government is the best vehicle to arrive at this goal. In fact, any actual experience with the poor will show that the best way to truly help them is to “teach them how to fish, rather than give them free fish.” In other words, we need to make them self-sufficient so they can learn how to work and produce on their own. Government does this extremely poorly. So, it may be that a large number of Mormons outside of Utah are progressive and accept communalism. I am not convinced that they have accepted that governments in the telestial world are the most effective medium.

  8. A few months after his baptism, Rhodakanaty’s Cartilla Socialista was published. It’s first paragraph reads:
    “Eighteen centuries ago humanity was moved at hearing the eloquent and sublime voice of twelve inspired fishers who preached the doctrine of Jesus. That doctrine was that of socialism.”
    I bring this up because religion is NOT the path to socialism for many of the left. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia comes to mind. He recounts with approval Spanish cemeteries where all references to religion had been scratched off tombstones by leftists. Maybe it is just anti-clerical sentiment (which old-style Mormonism supported) run too far, but “opiate of the masses” type dogma comes preferentially from the left. Rapacious capitalists may starve your grandmother for gain, but they don’t care what is written on her tombstone or what you think happenned to her soul.

    This can have a couple of effects for the saints. First, they may respond to attacks from the left by veering to the right. Second, politically neutral proselyting may still find an audience on the left that is less receptive to religion than the general population.

    The record on religion of the 20th Century’s most powerful leftists, the Soviet Communists, also seems relevant. The relief society president in my Baltimore ward was an early convert in Czechoslovakia. She had interesting stories about the semi-clandestine worship there. Again, a response to this by the some saints shifting right is understandable. On the other hand, the bishop of that same ward left South Korea because his employers wouldn’t fulfill their agreements with him to allow him to attend church services instead of work on Sunday. We do seem to give hard-headed capitalism an easier pass.

  9. “In other words, we need to make them self-sufficient so they can learn how to work and produce on their own. Government does this extremely poorly.”

    It’s getting pretty difficult to find any ‘self-sufficient’ people these days. Anyone out there whose work, production, or consumption is not dependent on others? Is that a laudable or even feasible goal, if self-sufficiency means being an island unto oneself with attendant exclusivity?

    Government does an extremely poor job helping people to work and produce. Compared with what? The historical record is mixed on this issue (e.g. successful late developing countries rely heavily on a strong state, also think of R & D at the NIH, the Internet, etc.). In my own neck of the woods, the government energy projects of years past provide the energy I use to run my computer. Pretty good job! Even better since we’re no longer washing our clothes in the river.

    To the extent that freedom is closely associated with autonomy, the more independent we are (personal property, wealth, etc.) the better. If freedom is found not in autonomy but embeddedness, then to the extent that government is a good partner and facilitates access to many interdependent relationships, the better. That didn’t come out right, sorry.

    The gist, isn’t interdependence of higher value than independence Government is about managing interdependence.

  10. Ronan James Head: How about Harry Reid, no other Mormon has held a higher congressional position (right?).

    There seem to be several factors that have influenced the political climate of the American Mormon establishment. Not least is Elder Benson’s anti-socialist stance with books like “The Red Carpet: Socialism to Communism�, and conference addresses: “Our families may be corrupted by worldly trends and teachings unless we know how to use the book to expose and combat the falsehoods in socialism…�April 1975.

    There seem to be the theological underpinnings for a libertarian stance: “We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life.� DC 134:2

    Russell Aben Fox is, I believe, correct. The 1972 McGovern nomination by the Democratic Party was a huge shift to the secular. Factions within the latter portion of second wave feminism were and still are deemed offensive to many. When you couple the church policies of the early 70’s (remember this is pre-official declaration 2) with the activist rhetoric it is easy to see why many shed their party affiliation. This is very similar to what has happened in the South. Not having a parliamentary system also increases the polarization and the tendency to fall into one camp or the other.

    When you consider how many of the early Saints where born outside of the US (does anyone have a figure, I would guess somewhere in the 90% range), I am fascinated by the seemingly homogeneous culture we have now (Is there any work that has followed/analyzed this transition).

    The disparity between Utah Politics and those of the International Saints has to be a source of conflict. But there is nothing that I can see on the horizon that will change it.

  11. Excellent comment, John, where you point out that anti-religiosity is viewed as a part of the left. And, by logic, religion becomes part of the right.

    Originally this anti-religiosity had less to do with religion than with a reaction against the Churches that had exploited the masses, had sided with the exploiters, and were preaching a gospel of obedience to those in power. In a Mormon perspective, all those “religions” were called “abominations” in the very first revelation of the Restoration.

    The French Revolution (1789), which destroyed churches and monasteries, was not directed against religion, but against the exploitation by the Church as an institution that sided with the King. In fact the French revolutionaries replaced the old religion by a new, pretty original one, with symbols, prayers and rituals. I did my Ph.D. thesis on the place of religion in utopian (socialist) societies. While most critics thought that those societies replace religion by reason, the research indicated that religion remained a very important part of it. The criticism of the social utopists is always directed towards the Churches, mainly the Catholic Church. But in their imaginary societies they did invent some original new religions to replace the Catholic one.

    “Opiate for the masses” has also to been seen in that perspective. Marx concluded, perhaps rightfully in the context of his time, that religion had always been misused to keep the masses ignorant and exploited. From there came the overgeneralization to religion as such. The Russian revolution, the Spanish civil war, and others, must partly be seen in that context: the fight against the Church, whether Orthodox or Catholic, was a fight for social justice. Religion was despised because of the misuse institutional churches had made of it.

    Without all those nuances in a historical context it is difficult to assess where we stand now.

  12. J. Stapley asked: “I am fascinated by the seemingly homogeneous culture we have now (Is there any work that has followed/analyzed this transition).”

    There must be many works that do. I am not a specialist, others should be able to point at the best sources, but I found the following useful:

    An easy-readable article by Jeremiah Stettler, “One-party system in place?” in Logan’s Herald Journal in 2002: http://news.mywebpal.com/partners/672/public/news321010.html

    Fascinating is also Ethan Yorgason, No Grounds for Conversation: The Regional Construction of Fundamental Difference between Mormonism and Socialism. Antipode, Volume 34, 4, September 2002.

  13. Or does Utah’s present lack of political diversity represent a serious handicap, not only to Utah itself, but also to the rest of the Mormon world and to the image of the Church worldwide?

    We’ve seen one recent example of what kind of damage may result from prominent members being closely associated with a political party when Sheri Dew gave the invocation at the first session of the Republican National Convention, as has been discussed at length here at T&S.

  14. “Or does Utah’s present lack of political diversity represent a serious handicap, not only to Utah itself, but also to the rest of the Mormon world and to the image of the Church worldwide? ”

    Me, I was deploring the lamentable lefty-ism of the Church Abroad, which is the source of so much disunity with the rest of the Saints. :)

    I remember that one of my favorite people in Malaga, Spain, was the secretary of the local Communist party. He was a solid Saint. I always imagine that when he enters the pearly gates, good ol’ Ezra Taft Benson is going to be there to give him a hearty welcome and then take him aside for a few well-chosen words. May they quickly settle their differences.

    [Clarification: I’m hoping they quickly settle them in Ezra T.’s direction, of course. International Communism was all it was made out to be. Admittedly, the Spanish Communist Party was a lot more ‘Communist’ than it was Communist. But the stain of choosing that name to rally under and the mild instinct it gave them to defend their namesakes cannot, I’m afraid, be easily expunged.]

  15. The immigration of European converts to Kirtland->Missouri->Nauvoo->Utah slowed temporarily in the 1890s, dropped again during the interwar period (1911-1946), and finally, after a surge following the end of WWII, tapered off altogether in the 1950s. (Emigration statistics were no longer gathered after 1962.) America emerged as a global superpower, effectively marginalizing the devastated European nations, during the runup of the Cold War in the 1950s. The anti-communist swing of the American political right, sweeping the intermountain west to the right with it, began during the 1950s. I find the confluence of these social and gelopolitical factors fascinating.

    Would a geopolitical resurgence of Europe, which some commentators predict in coming decades, change either the immigration patterns of the international church or the political flavor of american Mormons?

  16. Hmmm … “gelopolitical”? Would that be frozen politics, or green Jello politics?

    Should read “geopolitical”.

  17. good ol’ Ezra Taft Benson is going to be there to give him a hearty welcome and then take him aside for a few well-chosen words.

    Mebbe, mebbe not. We might well remember that ETB was struck dumb during his last years as prophet. We don’t usually put it in those terms, but who’s to say it wasn’t a case of the Lord not letting a prophet lead us astray?

  18. I think a root of the problem with United States Mormons and Utah Mormons often being very conservative and Republican is based on the fact that there are only two political parties to choose from. If the political dialogue in the United States were more diverse and it wasn’t simply a matter of choosing between two options, then there would probably be a greater sense of debate and difference within the Church.

    David Ben-Gurion is credited with observing and stating: “Two Jews, Three Opinions.” I think the typical Mormon equivalent (if it were based in reality) would be something like “5 Mormons, 2 Opinions.” Of course (and fortunately) the commentary that takes place on T&S belies that type of an observation. If we’re going to progress as a Church one of the things we (as members) have to do is stop “thinking inside of the box.”

    And that’s why I’m voting for Bush this year. (snicker)

  19. Adam, you’re probably right. It is probably mere coincidence that the most politically outspoken and vitriolic apostle, upon becoming Church President, became the only Latter-day prophet to spend the majority of his term without the ability to speak.

    However, if you’ll entertain the possibility, what you gain might be some kind of evidence to support the common claim that the Lord will not allow a prophet to mislead the Church. Of course, you might be more comfortable leaving that as an unverifiable claim.

  20. only two political parties to choose from


    Maybe you haven’t heard about Nader, Badnarik, Cobb…there’s a whole slew of other candidates to chose from, maybe one of these is closer to your true political position? Or maybe you are just more comfortable inside one of the other–more powerful and popular and conventional–two boxes.

    Hopefully this campaign season we’ll all be more mindful of D&C 121’s injunction to avoid seeking to be powerful and popular.

  21. Rob, touche. Maybe I should have said two viable political parties with electable candidates. I suppose under very unusual circumstances Nader, Badnarik or Cobb (and their respective parties) could win the presidential election — but it’s very unlikely. In the back of my mind I was thinking of the difference between United States democratic politics and Israeli democratic politics — the difference being that in Israel there really are a multitude of parties that exercise political influence before and after the elections.

    In my opinion, candidates like Nader and Ross Perot were mere curiosities or novelties in the United States political process. They didn’t stand a chance of winning — but they did have the capability to throw election victory in one direction or the other. So I guess that is de facto influence.

    All I’m trying to say is that if there were more than two major political parties (major in the sense that the Democrats and Republicans represent today) that Mormon political discourse could be quite different than what it is.

  22. “All I’m trying to say is that if there were more than two major political parties (major in the sense that the Democrats and Republicans represent today) that Mormon political discourse could be quite different than what it is.”

    Indisputedly–but the question is, in what way different? I would love to believe that if, for example, the blue-collar Democrats and Catholics who’d given their all to the liberalism of FDR and JFK had, instead of bolting for the Reagan right in the 1970s and 80s, formed their own alternative Christian Socialist or Social Democratic party, that the Mormons would have been right their with them. But given the other dynamics I originally mentioned (dynamics which Rosalynde’s post adds to–population shifts within a church centered in the all-too-libertarian Internountain West), I fear that wouldn’t have been the case. Considering how well Bo Gritz’s Constitution party polled in Utah ten years back, I’d say that our people’s otherwise admirable adoration of the U.S. constitution has moved us, or at least the bulk of our American leadership, in anything but an economically or politically progressive direction. Nader won’t be winning many Mormon votes any time soon.

  23. Wilfried,

    I think Europeans are more attuned to class differences than Americans. That might explain why new European converts are disillusioned to find that their brother and sisters in the gospel don’t see themselves as part of a class struggle. Most Americans are aware of money, but they simply have no context in which to understand class structure.

    I remember being startled when I attended church services in Germany for the first time and heard a man referred to as “Herr Doktor� rather than brother. But as the months went by, I saw it in almost every ward or branch, and realized it was commonplace. There seemed to be an undue deference to one another’s social standing, and I would be very surprised if it did not still exist.

  24. Any reference to outside parties in the American system within the context of an international discussion has to be framed by the differences in governance between the US and other quasi-democracies. It is easy to see how, in a parliamentary system, many parties can coexist. In the US, a social democratic party, Christian socialist party, Green party, or whatever cannot have a strong national presence because there is no power-sharing (see 2000 election).

    What is feasible is alternative national Parties having a local presence (I think they said on NPR that the Libertarians have some 600 elected officials throughout the nation). The Green party has done a pretty good job at this as well. So the real trick is to have viable candidates for local election that espouse an alternative party and people will split the ticket on National elections.

    In the end you will never have parties which represent well the ideas of people, (and subsequently tempered by power-sharing). So I would imagine that any successful alternative party in the Wasatch front is going to be socially conservative (pro-life, antig-gay marriage, etc.) and will be attacked, not engendered by progressives nationally.

  25. Interesting comment, CB, about consciousness of class structure.

    The German example you mention may be typical German. Does not seem usual in the Church in Belgium or the Netherlands. People will always use either the first name or “brother / sister so and so”. Professional titles would normally never be used.

    Sometimes we mention “European” in the comparison with “American”, but some cultural traditions between the various countries do vary a great deal. Just like some vary between NY and Utah. We could start a thread on that one: what irritates you culturally when you are in (Utah)?

  26. Nader won’t be wining anything soon. It’s the institutions, stupid! American tradition benefits the two-party system, as do American electoral institutions. Our plurality voting rules tend to work against minor parties since they tend to produce under representation (Duverger’s mechanical effect). That produces a psychological effect, whereby potential supporters hesitate to vote for a minor-party candidate if they believe the candidate has little chance of winning. Call it the fear of the wasted vote.

    What are the chances of the US adopting a proportional representation and multiparty system? I’m a pessimist. Better luck capturing one of the two giants as a key faction.

  27. I have heard that the majority of LDS church members live outside the United States. After reading the comments here though, I’m wondering what ratio of United States LDS members live inside/outside of Utah. It seems that when we’re trying to figure out LDS U.S. politics we are looking at what is happening in Utah. I’m wondering to what extent this is accurate.

    Perhaps we should be as interested in the non-Utah LDS U.S. population and their views on matters as we are in the international church — as a growing(?) expression of LDS diversity. I’m guessing that the perspective of LDS members outside of Utah isn’t nearly as conservative as that of Utah’s LDS population.

  28. Wilfried–

    You’re asking for a flame war of epic proportions when you invite New Yorkers to share “what irritates you culturally when you are in (Utah)?” A 500-comment thread for sure.

    A light-hearted example: I remember bumping into my sister on campus at BYU at the beginning of the semester. She complained to me, “I’m so tired of all of these friendly people! If one more person smiles at me and says, ‘Good morning,’ I think I’m going to hit them!”

  29. Bryce,

    If your sister needed to witness expressions of Utahn rudeness all she had to do was get in a car, drive onto the highway and try to change lanes. :)

  30. Well, to keep it balanced: for each example of irritation also one example of appreciation.

  31. Russell Fox wrote: “…what parades under the banner of “liberalismâ€? in America has almost everything to do with abortion rights and no-fault divorce, and almost nothing to do with class empowerment and equality.”

    Russell, this does not describe the view of any liberal that I know. Not one. Most liberals I know are deeply concerned with “empowerment” and “equality.”


  32. CB, in which wards did you hear “Herr Doktor” used to address a member? Was it consistent, or a one-time thing? In jest, or serious? Reserved for one person, or a few, or in general use?

    I’ve spent some time in German wards, and I never heard anything like that. I would have noticed it during my time in Bonn or Erlangen, although it might have gone over my head while I was a missionary (mostly in Nordrhein-Westfalen). I believe you, but it strikes me as unusual. German wards have their issues, including what to call each other, but “Herr Doktor” is a new one for me, so I’m curious what the circumstances were.

    On the subject of politics, I might mention a friend of mine, now a bishop, who worked from the time he was a teenager until recently to build up a German party (the ödp) that was pro-family/socially conservative and pro-environment at the same time. It had something of a following in Bavaria, but recently he switched to the environmental circle of the CSU (in German politics, roughly equivalent to the Texas Republicans) so that his work might actually have some results.

  33. Another interesting data point in exploring these issues is that, as recently as the 1930s, the Church in general was far more liberal than its highest leadership. Pres. Heber J. Grant and J. Reuben Clark were vehemently opposed to FDR, and wrote many polemics designed to convince the membership to reject the New Deal. This had little effect on voting patterns and Mormons overwhelmingly supported FDR in both 1936 and 1940. (My source on this is Quinn’s biography of J. Reuben Clark.) Of course, when Democrat David O. McKay became president, Mormons supported Eisenhower, and the only Democratic presidential candidate to win in Utah since then was LBJ in 1964.

  34. I think the phenomenon Wilfried is describing is social and cultural as well as political. As a missionary in Belgium (walloon side) I noticed that the society was divided into socialists and Catholics, both of which terms carried both political and religious meanings for the person who used them. You could tell the difference among men even before speaking to them because socialists had beards, goatees, moustaches, etc. and Catholics were clean shaven. What was striking was that at the time, almost all of the active LDS men wore facial hair and looked like socialists even though, as far as I could tell, the Church members were fairly apolitical. (At one point the district president, who was more attuned to Utah norms, even gave a talk calling the brethren to repentance by shaving.)

    What I took from that, as well as other experience of the Church abroad, is that people who join the Church are not necessarily to the left politically, but they are, almost by definition, nonconformist in their attitudes. As noted, if they were socially conservative, they would have stayed with their received religious traditions. In contrast, in Utah the Church is the Establishment. And Utah culture so dominates the Church in the U.S. that even outside Utah, that conservative Utah Establishment orientation prevails.

    to be continued ….

  35. Bryan (W),

    You’re right; my claim was an incredible overstatement. In practice, liberal politics in America today is a lot broader than abortion rights and no-fault divorce; to pick one example at random, John Kerry has a lot to say about education, social security, health care, jobs, the minimum wage, education, and a whole lot more. He’s not reducible to my caricature, and neither is probably any other self-described liberal politician.

    The truth in my statement (which I think is there, though it was buried under unfortunate rhetoric) is to be found in the cultural divide which the contemporary forms of liberalism and conservatism have built upon and exacerbated in recent decades. As a body of ideas, contemporary liberalism has incorporated an emphasis on personal liberation, secular pluralism, and moral neutrality into its ideological mix. For many decades, the left in America, in one fashion or another, was able to advance egalitarian arguments which did not challenge the traditional, generally conservative, social and cultural mores and beliefs of, for example, the descendents of the early Mormon pioneers. As J. Stapley observed, it wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s that there began to be any disunity in the Democratic party platform, between being religiously conservative (as most of the working class Democratic voters since the turn of the century had been) and being economically progressive. But that disunity only grew, leading millions of “Reagan Democrats” (especially ethnic Catholics who had for decades been the backbone of the Democratic party’s progressive push for social reform and justice) to abandon the Democrats and embrace the Republican party. Of course, contemporary conservatism, being economically at least a quasi-libertarian movement, isn’t doing much for social and economic equality. But so long as the Democratic party insists on aligning itself with the choice-driven preferences of America’s cultural elite, its efforts to address collective welfare needs are going to be compromised, because some of their most natural supporters aren’t going to be able to swallow being “liberal” so long as liberal means being something which looks down its nose at traditional religious standards and presumptions.

    None of this is to say (and I was wrong if I implied it) that the vaguely “Christian socialist” Mormon pioneers whom Wilfried reminds us of would entirely throw up their hands at today’s candidates; in all likelihood, most of them could probably find good reasons to support candidates from either major party, and a lot of them probably would agree with a lot of contemporary liberal politics. But as a party or a movement, liberalism today, for all its egalitarian legacy and platforms, is inseparably identified with cultural liberation, not collective empowerment. That’s a tragedy, because it leaves our communalist inheritance without much of a political home.

  36. To comment on JWL’s experience in Belgium (thank you for the comments!)

    Some 20 years ago I surveyed socio-political attitudes among the Belgian members (Flanders) and found the following (article in BYU Studies, I summarize roughly):
    – Before conversion, most candidates for baptism had a traditional leaning to the left (taking into account membership in unions and voting patterns)
    – After their baptism, part of the members kept that ideological allegiance, while another part became a-political because none of the parties really corresponded to their new world view. The Socialists and the Liberals are not sympathetic to religion, are pro-abortion, while the Catholics… well, they are Catholics and persecute us!
    – Few people with a rightist background joined the Church.

    Not much seems to have changed since then, but a new survey would be interesting. We lack socio-cultural studies among the membership. They would provide us with a better view on various aspects, one being the factors that indirectly contribute to conversion.

  37. So I think that this difference is always going to remain until such time as either: (1) the Church becomes so strong in other countries that it becomes the Establishment or (2) the Church is disestablished in Utah.

    While I don’t know if the political divide will ever close, I hope that there is potential for a more social rapprochement (which could have political consequences). This would be from increasing sensitivity of American Mormons to the socio-economic situation of LDC Mormons. American Mormons are more exposed to Third World poverty than the average American because of missions and knowledge of the growth of the Church in LDCs. In general Third World poverty is not a major issue with American political conservatives. If American Mormons continue to become more aware of and concerned about poverty among LDS in the LDCs, there is a chance that American Mormons could start to see that solidarity with their Third World brothers and sisters separates them from their perceived political allies in America, at least socially if not electorally.

    Yes, that’s idealistic, but one can always hope.

    Another factor that could come into play here is that although progressivism as a cultural attribute has dwindled among the descendants of those early European converts, the scriptural teachings which bolstered their beliefs in promoting social and economic justice remain in place. One should be able to construct an LDS liberation theology out of the BoM, D&C, and PoGP in one’s sleep. I honestly believe that it migth not take that much of a spark to dramatically turn the attitudes of Utah-style Latter-day Saints in this regard.

    to be continued …..

  38. Finally, I think it would be interesting to poll the bloggers for information about the political attitudes of those few Latter-day Saints who have entered politics outside of the U.S. At least part of the modern Republican dominance in Utah has its roots in the intense partisanship of early 20th C leaders like Joseph F. Smith, Reed Smoot, Heber J. Grant, and Reuben Clark. It would be interesting to know where high profile Latter-day Saints stand in countries outside the U.S. For example, the first Mormon elected to Parliament in the UK was Labour (against Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax and in favor of Tony Blair style family values). I can’t remember his name — what has become of him? Did the fact that he was Labour reinforce the leftward orientation of contemporary British Mormons? What are the politics of Moroni Turgon in Brazil? I notice that the first Latter-day Saint (a woman) was just elected to the Japanese parliament, apparently as an independent. What is her story?

    Thanks to Wilfried for this intersting thread.

    P.S. Party? what time?

  39. Not sure what time. I think it’ll be probably 8-ish. But the whole East Coast of the Bloggernacle will be there, and so should you. Bring Jenny-what’s-her-name-that-I-met-at-the-moroni-ceremony, I think she would enjoy it.

  40. My experiences in wards in Connecticut, Virginia, Illinois, California and Arizona indicate to me that the LDS vote is fairly monolithically Republican, even outside Utah. The only exception being my summer sojourn in the Manhattan First Ward, 25 years ago.

    In my current urban ward in Arizona, I am the only admitted Kerry supporter. There were a few other ward members who, like me, opposed the US invasion of Iraq, most of whom were immigrants to the US from Asia and Latin America. Perhaps that is consistent with Wilfried’s observation of the differences of politics between the Saints in the U.S. and those from outside the U.S.

  41. JWL,
    Of course I hope you’re right, not because I want a political shift, but because I want the Saints to stand in solidarity with each other. I note that conservative evangelicals have done a good job of reaching out to their coreligionists abroad. Their effort is starting to influence GOP politics and policies.

  42. Excellent idea of JWL to identify the Mormon political figures outside the US. We should need to know their party affiliation (+ a word of explanation on the tendency, as e.g. “liberal” can mean left or right according to the country).

    In the UK, it’s Terry Rooney, Labour Member of Parliament, elected in 2001. Looks like a nice leftist record: “Before entering Parliament, was a welfare rights worker… Member of Low Pay Unit, Unemployment Unit, Labour Housing Group and Labour Campaign for Social Justice”

    Brazil has Moroni Torgan – Liberal Front Party (right-wing?). What more do we know of him?

    What about the Japanese sister whom JWL mentioned?

    Curious to know with how many we’ll come up with.

  43. He’s not outside of the U.S., but another high-ranking Mormon liberal is Judge Richard Paez of the 9th Circuit. He is Mexican-American and was appointed by Clinton. He went to BYU as an undergrad, and prior to becoming a judge he worked at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and Legal Aid.

  44. Plotino Rhodakanaty:
    The Anarquismo and the Laboring Fight in Mexico

    The Greek anarchist Rhodakanaty represents one of the extraordinariest and pioneering examples of militancy ácrata internationalist. Its devotion to the ideal was complete, in the romantic spirit and lucidamente exaltado that folloied it for all its difficult existence.

    In April of 1861, Plotino disembarked in Mexico. Vine running away from the imperial forces that had condemned it for participating of the fights for the independence of its country and, later, for the independence of the Hungria of the Austrian domain.

    Disciple of Proudhon, influenced for the ideas of socialist the utopian Charles Fourier, shortly afterwards to disembark tried to organize the camponeses, according to proudhoniano mutualismo and the model of communal organization (falanstério) of Fourier.

    According to Angel Cappelletti, Rhodakanaty, as well as Kropotkin, “trusted the of course comunalista soul and ácrata of the peoples of the world and, in calpul, saw the base solid that the aboriginal past drank a toast to the socialist future.”

    Its assay of agrarian colonies resulted in fiasco, that it did not discourage it. In contrast, quickly account of that the failure was more the fruit of the imposition of models and ideas of are, of that of a pretense incapacity or resistance of the Mexican camponeses was given if to organize solidarily.

    Immediately, it was launched the propaganda, verbal and writing, of the ideas of auto-organization and autogestionária activity. Still in 1861, it had written socialist ballot box cartilha, species of elementary catecismo of the school of Charles Fourier, to be distributed in Mexico.

    In 1863, it organized the first group of anarchic students, that little later would incorporate its philosophy the libertarian teses of Bakunin. This small group, known as Group of Socialist Students, they had left the main communitarian, syndical and socialist leaders of Mexico, such as the militant laborer Santiago Villanueva and the propagandist Hermenegildo libertarian


    In 1868, the GES decides to create with its master a declared anarchic organization, which had given the name of Social La. This organization quickly was become involved in the syndical fights, in favor of the reduction of the hours of working, the improvement of the general conditions of work and for the increase of the wages. All the young of the group had received the ideas of Bakunin and had organized the first laboring nuclei, filiados to the International Association of the Workers (AlT), transforming the societies of mutual aid into resistance society.

    Rhodakanaty never declared bakuninista. Its philosophy if approached more to the constructive idea of the first anarchists, of the passion for the harmony with the nature, of a certain almost religious panteísmo, and of I reject it to the violence as obstetrician of history and the social changes. In this direction, Rhodakanaty was contrary the organization of armed revolutionary groups, basing its hopes of change in the propaganda, the self management and the social transformation of low for top, slow more inexoravelmente. Rhodakanaty if advanced in many things, ideas and attitudes, its more active disciples, who had soon left of side the teses of the master, convoked for more radical and urgent fights.

    Despite this apparent fiction, Rhodakanaty always felt that its young friends and friends of fight were the continuation of the anarchic ideal that it defended e, in the biggest part of the cases, the necessary consequence of its autogestionária organizativa conception.

    In fact, the ticket of the first laboring associations organized by Plotino and its friends, characterized for its purpose of aid and mutual support, for the societies of resistance and fight, for the improvement of the life and work conditions, was very fast.

    In 1865, only four years after the arrival of Plotino Rhodakanaty to Mexico, the group of young disciples organized the first strike of Mexico. They had participated of it diligent of two têxteis plants (let us not forget that Plotino was tailor and that one of its first objectives was to refundar the missing person Mutual Society of the Branch of Alfaiataria), that they had paralyzed the production and if needy conditions of work and wages had kept occupying the plants in protest for duríssimas.

    This first strike hardly was restrained by the army of the Maximiliano emperor-puppet, tax to Mexico for French emperor Napoleão III.

    Still that, in 1865, Rhodakanaty inhabited in Chalco, its disciples developed an extraordinary revo1ucionária activity in the city of Mexico. The young Villanueva and Villavicencio had created the first organizations of craftsmen and laborers who had quickly become trend unions anarco-syndicalist.

    Exactly after the execution by firing-squad of Maximiliano and the ascent to the power of Pretty Juarez, the conditions of the laboring classroom and the camponeses had not improved. The new laboring organizations had that to fight now in numerous fronts. They had for the front the capitalist conservatives, who had supported Maximiliano, grasped to its almost feudal privileges, and also the reformists of Juarez, whose liberalism finished in the door them plants and launched to the absolute misery and the marginalização a number each bigger time of Mexicans.

    Although everything, the seeds planted for Plotino and its friends had borne fruit in numerous places. In 1869, he was established, in the city of Mexico, the Proletarian Circle. In the following year, the Great Circle of the Laborers of Mexico.

    Not obstante the hardness of the confrontations, grows the splits between the workers.

    In 1876, a Laboring General Congress of the Mexican Republic was become fullfilled, that accepted many of the anarchic teses. But action and the reforming policy if would fortify from years 80, ties libertarian resurging of the beginning of century XX, with the brothers Magón Flowers.

    M. Genofonte

    Extracted of the magazine La Campana, Pontevedra, Spain.

    Translated and adapted for the Collective one of Translators of the Celip.

  45. In the 2000 election, the elder’s quorum president and at least one bishop’s counselor in my Austin ward voted with me for Nader. I took one of my inactive friends to a Nader rally for a home teaching visit. There were a number of other ward members who were tempted by Nader, but finally voted Republican because of the abortion issue. This election, I know many ward members who are voting Democrat, and even Green and Socialist. Of course, there are plenty of Bush voters as well. Makes for a fun Elders Quorum. We’ve had some good discussions about the war in Iraq.

    Back during the 1994 midterm elections, I was in DC. Our mostly black Capitol Hill Branch was hardly monolithic politically. Lots of Democratic voters in the bunch.

    On my mission in Ecuador, we tried to stay away from political discussions,but as a died-in-the-wool-ultra-orthodox-hard-right-Mormon, I was shocked to see active church members actively supporting Marxist parties. Of course, after two years in all that poverty and witnessing an Ecuadorian perspective on our invasion of Panama, my own world view shifted quite a bit.

    As for an LDS liberation theology…I put together an LDS liberation theology readings class as an anthropology undergrad at BYU in about 1992. Taught by David Knowlton, before he was forced to look for greener pastures. Those were halcyon days at BYU, in the wake of the First Gulf War Teach In at the Varsity Theater and the formation of a Socialist Club on campus. Student Review was strong (I was religion editor). I wrote Marxist papers for my anthro classes. As progressives, we were outnumbered, but found plenty of other folks to hang out with in the Maeser building. Not sure if there’s anything like that there now.

  46. “Those were halcyon days at BYU, in the wake of the First Gulf War Teach In at the Varsity Theater and the formation of a Socialist Club on campus.”

    And don’t forget the campus feminist club, VOICE–the early 90s is when they first started making waves. All in all, I don’t know if the 1990-1993 period qualifies as “halcyon,” but there was definitely a lot of ferment at BYU back then, paralleling the ferment in intellectual Wasatch Front Mormonism at the same time. The teach-in against Deseret Storm was a big deal; we must have had 150 people crowded into that Wilkinson center ballroom.

    “Student Review was strong (I was religion editor).”

    And he was consistently the funniest writer we ever had. Well, ok, maybe not the funniest, strictly speaking, but certainly the most off-the-wall. Who can forget testimony bingo? You were a treasure, Rob.

    “As progressives, we were outnumbered, but found plenty of other folks to hang out with in the Maeser building. Not sure if there’s anything like that there now.”

    Not in the Maeser building at least there isn’t. Remember Rob? They kicked us out; we had to find somewhere else to meet. (I don’t blame the Honors deans, at least not very much; there was a lot of heat coming down.) Or was all that after you’d left us? Maybe we were still meeting in the Maser building as of 1994, but I’m not sure. That was just one of a series of death blows to the Student Review that year. Our annus horribilis, from which there was, in the end, after a long pathetic decline, ultimately no recovery.

  47. RJH: I remember speaking to a convert (he joined the church in Amsterdam, by the way!) who was HORRIFIED to learn that the majority of American Mormons were Republican. He had been reading in the Ensign where they publish details of LDS Congressmen. For him Republican = evil, nasty, un-Christian, selfish, environment-hating, rich, hyper-Capitalists.

    Oh, so then he did have an accurate take on things, huh? ;-)

  48. My ward in Brooklyn maybe the only one in the United States where the bishop, EQ president and RS president will be voting Democratic in the presidential election.

    Also, another high ranking Mormon “liberal” — Christine Durham, Utah’s Chief Justice. Frankly, I don’t know how liberal she actually is (though I know her son well and he’s left-of-center), but she was appointed by a Democrat and was once mentioned as a possible Clinton appointee to the federal bench.

  49. VOICE…

    …I was on the staff of their first newsletter. At least until I made some club leaders mad by suggesting that maybe we’d all get farther if we refrained from demonizing each other and referring to men as pigs.

    And don’t forget the Mormon Peace Gathering. And Sam Rushforth’s environmental activism class (which I was run out of for not being doctrinaire enough!). I still say the early 1990s was a peak of progressivism at BYU.

    As for Student Review, too bad some folks had to run that pub into the ground for their own ego satisfaction and to push their own angry agendas. At least for a few brief years, I think we did a great job to show that you could have a questioning mind and not threaten (at least too much) the social order at the Y. Testimony bingo, Cureloms & Cumoms, Vanity Plates of the Nephites, Sacrament Meeting Remote, Book of Laman…No mere angry lefties we, all good clean religious fun! Too bad there isn’t that same type of voice there now…or hardly anywere away from T&S in Mormon Circles…and even here sometimes its a good stretch between belly laughs. For my part, I haven’t done as well as I could for the “cause”…I know I’ve contributed more on the lines of raw nerves than tickled funny bones in my comments here.

  50. On the broader topic of “Why aren’t Utah/American Mormons more like those in other places?”, this quote from V.S. Naipaul came to mind:
    “Islam is in its origin an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands. His sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own: he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his.”

  51. Ah, the Mormon Peace Gathering. I’ve meant to blog on that at some point. Thought I’d need your help, Rob, to do it right; Melissa and I went the year after you guys did, and it was mainly at your urging that we participated at all. A great experience.

  52. One of those Student Review death blows was probably my lukewarm tenure as Opinions editor in that period. Sorry about that. Still, I’m quite proud of my “support groups for families of missionaries called to US missions” satire article. I wish I still had a copy of it.

    Speaking of left LDS politicians, there was a so-called “Red Patriarch” in East Germany, I believe in the 60’s and 70’s, who apparently held positions in both the church and the regional government. I would tell you his name, but I only learned about it while flaming out spectacularly in an on-stage New Years Eve party trivia contest, where I also showed my whole ward that I didn’t know who wrote “I hope they call me on a mission,” couldn’t identify the most popular German film of all time from quotes, can’t be funny in a foreign language after 11 PM, and can’t sink a layup with a basketball.

  53. Thank you, Jonathan and others. BYU campus seems pretty quiet now since you all left.

    Who would know more about the Red Patriarch?

    About the French: at the 2002 CESNUR International Conference
    a French scholar discussed the relation of French Mormons with their “American church”.

    I quote from the report:

    “Bernadette Rigal-Cellard of the Université Michel de Montaigne-Bordeaux surveyed French members of the LDS Church to ask how they relate to a church with so many American qualities when the French people have a predisposed distaste for American culture.

    A majority of the respondents were not bothered at all by the special place America held in God’s design in Mormonism,” she said. “Most French LDS refuse to be seen as belonging to an American church and they still have the same love-hate relationship with America as do other French.”

    Still, Rigal-Cellard said the 50 or so French members of the LDS Church she surveyed … noted distinctly American cultural identity markers to their faith. Those markers ranged from cookies and free English lessons offered by Mormon missionaries to the “very un-French” tendencies of super-patriotism and public testimony of religious beliefs.

    As the numbers of non-American converts to Mormonism continue to eclipse U.S. converts, Rigal-Cellard said French Mormons believe the “Made In the U.S.A.” label of Mormonism will fade. “One French LDS missionary told me the myth of the Mormons as an American church will soon be forgotten because the Mormon Church will be no more American than the Catholic Church is Roman,” she said. “I thought that a bit short-sighted since, while we in France call it just the Catholic Church, everywhere else it is still known as the Roman Catholic Church.”

  54. Rob wrote: “I know I’ve contributed more on the lines of raw nerves than tickled funny bones in my comments here.”

    We expect better things from you when the election is over and you become (slighly) less apocalyptic.

  55. We expect better things from you when the election is over and you become (slighly) less apocalyptic.

    After dusk settles over America, I’m gonna need some humor in a serious way!

    In the meantime, I was praying about my Presidential electoral choices this time and my heart turned towards my left-leaning fathers long enough to consider Walt Brown, Socialist Party-USA for President.

    Workers of the World Unite… for Zion!

  56. Growing up in the UK I remember hearing from my dad that you couldn’t be a good Mormon unless you belonged to the Conservative party (Thatcher/Majors and all that). Growing up I always considered myself a big supporter of Thatcherism–until I went on my mission and read King Benjamins address in the BoM–now my dad just cannot believe that it was the my mission and reading the BoM that turned me to the dark side. I’m a lefty all the way.

    However, the Conservative’s in the UK are still pretty liberal when compared to Republicans here.


  57. Ron draws our attention to the situation in Belarus. While Russia, thanks to Pres. Clinton (interesting story) and others, suspended its intentions to curtail foreign religions, other former USSR-states have implemented laws to stop the invasion of “sects” that “threaten” their cultural & religious traditions.

    It shocks us in terms of lack of freedom, but it should also be seen in the light of their internal struggle to recoup their religious past & identity after the fall of Communism. As they see it: the Orthodox Church can finally regain some of its territory after decades of persecution. And suddenly these foreigners arrive with big money and means to steal away the souls of their flock…

    On the other hand, it is a part of a much more complex spectrum of fundamental liberties.
    See the US report

    Also interesting are the Helsinki reports. Search Google with
    Helsinki + Religious Freedom and Tolerance

  58. My grand-father (who was raised by his grand-parents who were among the poor pioneer children that left England in 1856 with Willie & Co.) was fond of saying he had five sons and a republican. My father was that republican and, as far as I know, his brothers remain to this day democrats.

    As my own political consciousness evolved I became aware that our world has more than two facets. I consider myself a CENTRIST. Doubtless you’ve never heard of the CENTRIST party but, perhaps, someday you will. Until a viable option exists, it seems to me that backing the party with social values closest to mine (Republican) is the best use of my political energies.

    What I really wonder is, why do Mormons who run for high political office ignore the “Mormon Mafia” rather than engage it to their benefit?

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