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 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."

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo