Last week, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Weinholtz held a fundraiser at “Saturday’s Voyeur,” the annual production that lampoons Utah politics and society. But a predominant theme is Mormonism — its beliefs, practices and culture. Weinholtz defended the fundraiser play as a parody rather than anti-Mormon bigotry and said Mormons who were offended by the performance wouldn’t vote for him anyway.
There are two important issues to consider here. One is the question of who determines bigotry. Do whites get to say what constitutes racism, or is that something African-Americans or Hispanics decide? Do we turn to non-Jews to identify anti-Semitism? Usually, the offended group defines whether an action or statement is offensive, not others outside the group. That is because others do not share the sensitivities and experiences of the group. Therefore, they have difficulty realizing that offense has occurred.
Since Weinholtz is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it might be better for him to leave the determination of anti-Mormon bigotry to Mormons. Having said that, it is likely the vast majority of active Latter-day Saints would view “Saturday’s Voyeur” as offensive. If Latter-day Saints view the performance as offensive, Weinholtz should accept that rather than seek to minimize the offense.
Another question for Weinholtz is whether the play in question would have been used as a fundraiser had it been about some other group, such as Muslims. Wouldn’t such a performance have been shunned by the Weinholtz campaign? In fact, what if the Herbert campaign had held a fundraiser in conjunction with a parody of Muslims? How would Weinholtz have responded?
Is one type of religious parody (i.e. anti-Mormon) acceptable, while another kind (anti-Muslim) is beyond the pale? Is there a difference? If so, what is it?
Unfortunately, the difference is that for some people anti-Mormon bigotry is considered acceptable, as evidenced by “Saturday’s Voyeur.” Ironically, these individuals would strongly inveigh prejudice against some groups — Jews or Muslims — but they have a blind spot toward anti-Mormon bias. Unfortunately, Weinholtz gave voice to these individuals by dismissing the concerns of Mormons about such bias.
A second issue is the relationship between Democrats and LDS voters. For many Democrats, electoral appeals to Mormons are a waste of time and those Democratic candidates who do so are considered traitors to Democratic values. By saying offended Mormons wouldn’t vote for him anyway, Weinholtz was articulating that view. Of course, with that kind of attitude, he is right.
But that group of active LDS voters is not tiny. Polls have shown that active Latter-day Saints constitute a majority of the electorate. It is not possible for a candidate to win statewide, including the governorship, without wooing a significant portion of the LDS vote. Yet, Weinholtz seems content to throw away active LDS support.
Besides being an electorally stupid act, it is the latest indication of the lack of interest by too many Democrats in seeking to appeal to LDS voters. Candidates running for statewide office in Utah, or running for electoral office in nearly all of the state, face an electorate that consists largely of active LDS voters. Yet, some Democratic candidates run campaigns that, intentionally or unintentionally, antagonize LDS voters. As a result, they lose badly.
If Weinholtz also loses badly, as current polls suggest, that could be a wake-up call to Democratic candidates that LDS voters matter. The best future strategy for the Utah Democratic Party is to field Democratic candidates who appreciate, not disparage, LDS values. In many areas, LDS values mesh neatly with the national Democratic Party — public education, care for the poor and needy, environmental stewardship, etc. For others — pro-choice on abortion or lack of concern about religious freedom — they do not. Future Democratic candidates should take note that adherence to the national party in all policy areas, not to mention dismissing anti-Mormon bias, turns off LDS voters.
Utah desperately needs a two party system. That could include a Democratic Party appealing to the majority of voters. The result would be a healthy two party competition that promotes accountability in government. But the Weinholtz campaign’s actions indicate the party may have a long way to go to get there.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of "The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Politics." His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.