Pignanelli: "The decline of frontier Mormonism" was the explanation offered by my late friend James Noble Kimball as to why colorful characters like his great-uncle, J. Golden Kimball, are a rarity in Utah. He mourned the decline of hardscrabble, outspoken characteristics of the men and women who crossed the Plains and developed this desert.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, an active LDS member, demonstrated this uncommon demeanor in his bold but endearing speech at Brigham Young University 12 days ago. The father of three missionaries praised Franklin Delano Roosevelt, honored labor unions and declared the social responsibility of Democrats in harmony with LDS principles. In the heart of Utah County, the ridiculous presumption that Democrats could not be devout LDS was obliterated.
Reminiscent of frontier Mormonism, Reid observed "some very prominent members of the church, like Ezra Taft Benson, who are really right-wing people ... have taken members of the church down the path that is the wrong path." Reid incurred severe criticism from fellow members. Yet he never questioned doctrine or prophets, just individual members. President Benson was a kind, warm father figure beloved by members and nonmembers. However, Benson as a younger church leader expressed troubling declarations, including disparaging the civil rights movement with accusations of communism, open support of the John Birch Society and the desire to form a national third-party with Alabama Gov. George Wallace (as detailed in "David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism" authored by former Republican Party Chairman Robert Wright and LDS scholar Gregory Prince). Reid's honest illustration that ultraconservative activities by some church leaders were harmful to members was cathartic for many Utahns.
Today, the second most powerful individual in the U.S. government is an LDS Democrat. Reid openly quotes from the Book of Mormon, is open with his temple recommend and expresses pride in the elements of his faith, including missionary work, family prayer and admiration of Joseph Smith. The contrast with his LDS brother, Mitt Romney, is striking. Since January, Romney has obfuscated the 10th Article of Faith (gathering of Zion in America and Jerusalem), blasted polygamous practices of early church leaders and recently distanced himself from baptism for the dead. Reid's faith is not an issue in national politics because it is a source of pride for him. Romney ought to take a lesson.
In a brief speech, the tough, proud "frontier Mormon" Harry Reid provided inspiration to Utah Democrats, enlightenment to Republicans and furthered the cause and reputation of his church on the national scene. All of us should be grateful for his courage.
Webb: Harry Reid gave a nice speech at BYU. His comments to reporters afterward weren't so charitable.
In his prepared remarks (I didn't hear the actual speech) he "bore his testimony" several times. Early in the speech, for example, he said, "I have a testimony of God, his son Jesus and the restored gospel, now led by the Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley."
It's unfortunate that he had to spoil a good speech by later disparaging one of the church's prophets. Plenty of people, both Democrats and some Republicans, disagreed with some of Ezra Taft Benson's political views before he became church president. But Reid didn't need to resort to name-calling.
Reid's speech was quite remarkable. As a liberal Democrat, he was able to say personal things that a conservative Mormon Republican (including Mitt Romney) would be ridiculed for. His speech was good for the LDS Church and good for Mormon Democrats. As a worldwide institution with 13 million members, the church wants to avoid being perceived as a Republican church or a Democratic church. It wants to welcome members from diverse cultures and political persuasions.
Contrary to the whining of many Utah Democrats, the church has always welcomed Democrats, including among its top leadership, and has done nothing institutionally to discourage membership in the party.
However, at the political grassroots level, it has to be pretty obvious to all but the most dense among us why most Utah Mormons are Republicans, not Democrats. It has nothing to do with church leader directives. It has everything to do with party platforms and political philosophy. Utahns have considered both parties and selected the one that best reflects their political values.
A minority of Mormons, Harry Reid included, have concluded the Democratic Party best represents their political views. That's fine. But a majority of Utahns, as reflected in numerous elections, think otherwise.
In his speech, which chronicled his LDS Church conversion, Reid commented, "I also say that my faith and political beliefs are deeply intertwined. I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it."
Reid can get away with such a statement because he's a liberal Democrat. Had Orrin Hatch said, "I am a Republican because I am a Mormon," he would have been severely criticized.As a church member, it's cool that the country's second most powerful leader would end a public speech this way: "I bear testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ the foundation for the blessings we now enjoy laid by the young boy and assassinated Prophet Joseph Smith and with certainty, I testify of Gordon B. Hinckley as our modern day prophet."
Republican LaVarr Webb was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. He now is a political consultant and lobbyist. E-mail: [email protected]. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. A former candidate for Salt Lake mayor, he served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. Pignanelli's spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a Utah state tax commissioner. E-mail: [email protected].