The Mormon Dilemma: What About Mormon Latinos? | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona


The Mormon Dilemma: What About Mormon Latinos?

Editor's note: Due to a technical glitch, a passage in this story that was supposed to appear in italics did not. It's been corrected in this version; New Times regrets the error. Mormons place a premium on obedience — something Republicans are counting on as Election Day approaches. Leaders of...
Share this:

Editor's note: Due to a technical glitch, a passage in this story that was supposed to appear in italics did not. It's been corrected in this version; New Times regrets the error.

Mormons place a premium on obedience — something Republicans are counting on as Election Day approaches.

Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe it's a Mormon's duty to engage in the civic process and, certainly, to vote.

Mormon church officials state publicly they do not get involved in partisan politics, nor do they give members a list of church-sanctioned candidates. But is there a difference between telling members of the flock for whom to vote and telling them how to vote?

The answer is key, as turnout among Arizona's more than 395,000 Mormons likely will be a boon at the polls, not only for presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the highest-profile Mormon in the country, but for U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Flake and scores of local and legislative candidates who also are LDS.

Although Mormons already are more likely to register to vote and cast ballots, having a fellow Mormon on the presidential ballot might get a bump even out of this already civic-minded bunch.

Just as President Barack Obama electrified the black electorate in 2008, and Kennedy mobilized the Catholic vote in 1960, pundits believe Romney's candidacy could motivate Mormons.

In 1960, "inner-city Catholic votes unquestionably provided John F. Kennedy's razor-thin margin of victory," George J. Marlin wrote in an October 2010 article for the Catholic Thing.

In that election year, "a record-breaking 64.5 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, and Kennedy was elected with 34.2 million votes (49.7 percent) to Richard Nixon's 34.1 million (49.6 percent)," according to Marlin.

Marlin observed that, out of pride, 67 percent of Catholics, who had supported the Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, swung back to the Democrat Kennedy and boosted his total share of the Catholic vote to more than 70 percent.

In 2008, as then-Senator Barack Obama, a Democrat from Illinois, was poised to become the first black president of the United States, a wave of energy rushed through minority voters, and the presidential election that year turned out 5 million more voters than in 2004. Of those, 2 million were African-Americans, 2 million were Latinos, and 600,000 were Asian-American voters.

During Arizona's 2008 Republican primary, when Romney was vying for the presidency, Mormons made up 11 percent of the state's electorate, according to an ABC Exit poll. Of LDS voters, 88 percent supported fellow Mormon Romney, while 8 percent lent their support to fellow Arizonan Senator John McCain.

Without a homegrown candidate on the Republican ticket during the 2012 Republican primary, Arizona Mormons — who held a 14 percent share of the electorate — upped their support of Romney to 93 percent.

"No doubt, among many LDS, the Romney campaign is welcome. He does share the conservative views of the . . . region that includes Utah, Nevada, and parts of Arizona," Ignacio Garcia, a professor of Western and Latino History at Brigham Young University, tells New Times.

But what about among Mormon Latinos?

Garcia says that Romney's candidacy "highlights a wedge issue in the church."

Mormon doctrine specifically teaches that immigrants are to follow the laws of the land, and even prohibits church employment for undocumented immigrants. Yet the church has adopted a permissive view when it comes to illegal immigration.

As a matter of policy, the church discourages members from entering or staying in the country illegally but believes that controls of this population should include giving undocumented immigrants a chance to "square themselves with the law and continue to work without this necessarily leading to citizenship."

The church found it necessary in June 2011 to admonish its members to avoid being judgmental of undocumented immigrants who enter the temple or who have been ordained to the priesthood.

It's a fine line to walk, since Mormons proselytize to the Latino community in the United States and abroad. Some estimate that 70 percent of Latinos in the LDS church are undocumented immigrants who are permitted to take spiritual leadership roles and go on preaching missions.

Garcia says that Latino Mormons are much more supportive of Latino issues, and "they are much different than the people who Romney represents."

The church's view on illegal immigration stands in stark contrast with Romney, who pledges to veto the DREAM Act, a measure that would give certain undocumented youth brought to the country as children an opportunity to earn American citizenship.

The Mormon Church backed the Utah Compact, a measure that offers an approach for dealing with illegal immigrants that allows them to work, drive, and integrate into society.

Instead, Romney praised SB 1070, Arizona's law that mandates local cops to act as federal immigration-enforcement officials.

Garcia says that he, despite being Mormon, isn't going to vote for Romney because he doesn't represent his values, especially when he "keeps banging away with the anti-immigrant sentiment."

Last year's recall of a prominent Mormon elected official in Arizona — Senate President Russell Pearce — is a "good indication of the shift taking place in the church. People backed away from him because they knew the impact he was having among the Latino population, and that's a growing population," Garcia says.

Opponents of the anti-immigrant laws that Pearce fathered (until he was thrown out of office) believe they unfairly target Latinos and foster racial profiling.

Senator Jerry Lewis, a Republican Mormon from Mesa who unseated Pearce, tells New Times that Mormons understand persecution.

"As far as immigration, we believe we are all children of God, and we take very seriously the tenets of our faith, to love all of his children, to learn to get along with all people," he says.

Bob Grossfeld, a longtime Democrat political strategist based in Phoenix, says that the Pearce-Lewis race pitted Mormon against Mormon and served as a good example of the gradations within the religious yet political individual.

"There's no uniformity, even if it appears so from the outside," he says. "You've got Russell Pearce and crew working on immigration insanity, and up in Salt Lake City, you have them signing the Utah Compact and laying out a very humanitarian and principled approach."

Lewis' near-miraculous win — beating one of the most politically intimidating and influential elected officials in Arizona — leaves him unable to dismiss the thought that perhaps there is a chance that the state will flip from Republican red to Democratic blue and help re-elect the nation's first black president.

"When you look at President Obama, historically, at the essence of his rising to the most powerful position in the world, you can't ignore the fact that anything is possible," he says.

But is it possible in Arizona?

The origins of the Mormon Church — a religion that emerged through a divine revelation to a man named Joseph Smith living in New York during the 1800s — embrace the idea that anything is possible.

Smith established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about a decade after God, Jesus Christ, and various angels first appeared to him in visions in 1820, according to Mormon teachings. An angel instructed Smith to translate the present-day Book of Mormon from ancient golden tablets buried in a hill in upstate New York.

Unlike Catholics who believe that divine revelation ended with Jesus' apostles, Mormons believe that God looks like a human and still is revealing new truths, the Book of Mormon teaches.

Mormons also hold that God created many worlds with people on them, that there have been many Adams, that everyone has a heavenly existence before arriving on Earth, and that a child born provides a physical body for each of those heavenly beings.

Those living the most righteous lives here on Earth can, after they die, attain a place in the Celestial Kingdom, the highest of Heaven's three levels, according to Mormon beliefs.

For them, marriage is an eternal commitment that continues when they rejoin their Father in Heaven. And there, the men, with their heavenly wives at their side, also can become gods, to create and populate their own planets.

The earthly Mormons, who first populated the East Coast, moved west over the years, partly to escape the persecution they faced because their church's rapid growth, political power, and unconventional beliefs — including polygamy — often threatened an area's established political or religious system.

They fled Ohio after failed attempts to establish a Mormon community with a thriving economy. They moved to Jackson County, Missouri, and "had to be moved out before they dominated the county politically," wrote Roger Thompson, a longtime Mormon, in his book The Mormon Church.

Church members were attacked by mobs and militia groups and received no protection from the government. The governor of Missouri issued orders to exterminate the Mormons.

Smith decided that he would run for president of the United States, sending his saints to promote his candidacy. For trying to shut down an anti-Mormon newspaper, government officials sought Smith to stand trial. He eventually turned himself in and was killed by a mob while in jail.

Brigham Young, one of Smith's early converts, took the reins of the church and led its members. Life for Mormons remained tumultuous in the West, including in Arizona, where they engaged in bloody battles over land and water rights.

There were political factions comprising Jewish merchants, ranchers, and New Mexican sheep herders who worked tirelessly against the polygamous newcomers, observed Arizona native Daniel J. Herman, a professor of History at Central Washington University who is the author of a 2012 essay titled "Arizona's Secret History."

In those days, there was frustration about Mormons' anti-Mexican sentiment, prompting a newspaper editor, New Mexicans, and cowboys to form the Equal Rights Party, which ran on a platform of racial tolerance.

By contrast, the Mormons, thirsty for righting the wrongs against them, formed the People Party, which put up a successful candidate for sheriff who, historians report, orchestrated the deaths of at least 38 Mormon enemies.

Daniel Herman's account details the political history of four families: "The Romneys, the Udalls, the Flakes, and the Pearces — all prominent in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) — have produced dynamos for both major parties."

George Romney was governor of Michigan and once ran for president. Now, his son, Mitt, is running for president.

Levi Udall was the liberal chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. One of Levi's sons, Morris, became a U.S. congressman and ran for president. Another son, Stewart, served as Secretary of Interior. Morris' son Mark, in turn, is a U.S. senator from Colorado. Stewart's son Tom is a U.S. senator from New Mexico.

Jeff Flake, a U.S. congressman, is running for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona. His uncle Jake, who died in 2008, was speaker of the Arizona House and a powerful state senator.

Russell Pearce is former president of the Arizona Senate (he was recalled in 2011) and author of Senate Bill 1070, the anti-immigrant measure that sparked national outrage by making Hispanics targets for racial profiling. His great-grandfather James Pearce is founder of the Mormon town of Taylor, Arizona.

Pearce's brother, Lester, also served in the state Legislature, and resigned as justice of the peace to pursue a failed bid for a spot on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.

Mining journals, records, and published memoirs of Mormon pioneers (documents dating as far back as the 1800s), and Herman traced the Romneys, Udalls, Flakes, and Pearces to Apache County in the 1870s.

While most Mormons were Democrats in the 1880s, the church as a whole took a sharp turn to the right. At the same time, the Udalls — the liberals in the group — were busy converting New Mexicans, in Snowflake, the Flakes were kicking them out of the town.

"Out of the fires of frontier Arizona," Herman writes, "came Mormons liberal and Mormons conservative."

And how that will play out in November 2012 is anyone's guess. — Monica Alonzo

KEEP NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls. Make a one-time donation today for as little as $1.