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Are LDS welcome in top levels of national GOP?

Pignanelli: "You Mormons are an abomination!" shouted a group of Pentecostals at me while attending their conference here in Utah in the early 1980s. (As a custodian for the Newspaper Agency Corporation during my college days, I cleaned the outside windows on Main Street every Sunday morning — guaranteeing exposure to the truly bizarre.) Never one to back down from an argument, I responded with equal vigor to the tourists. Well armed with important elements of LDS doctrine and personal knowledge of the Bible, this nonmember waged a 45-minute shouting match on the sidewalk of the once busy thoroughfare. Only when the evangelicals discovered that I was Catholic did they throw their arms up in disgust and walk away (apparently a papist defending the restoration of the gospel was too much for them). This is when I learned that hostility for Latter-day Saints did not end in the 19th century.

Animosity by hard-line Christian faiths (Methodists, Presbyterians and Southern Baptists) against Mormons is increasing. The kindest insult these denominations consistently dish out is that Mormons are not Christians. Many of their spokesmen lump LDS with the weird Moonies, new age mystics and pagans. Their Web sites and libraries contain numerous tracts and treatises that disparage LDS doctrine and question their commitment to family values. In fact, organizers of the National Day of Prayer will not allow Mormons to participate.

This antagonism is more than just a theological quarrel. At least 40 percent of Republican delegates are conservative Christians, a united voting bloc with little tolerance for Mormons. Powerful right-wing groups such as Focus on the Family (which claims Mormons do not consume soda pop or chocolate) dedicate tremendous resources to influence elections and federal legislation. This evangelical base will actively oppose Mormons seeking political office (many are gearing up to stop Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney). Although on occasion a Mormon will be appointed to serve in a high-profile position, a thick stained-glass ceiling prevents LDS Republicans from obtaining congressional leadership or the presidency.

Conversely, national Democrats have a tradition of ambivalence toward the religious preference of their Mormon colleagues. Former President Jimmy Carter declared that Mormons were Christians and any fellow Southern Baptists who thought otherwise were "Pharisees." Prior to his defeat by Orrin Hatch, Utah Sen. Frank Moss was elected by fellow Democrats to the powerful role of majority whip and eventually would have been leader. Current Minority Leader Harry Reid is well-liked among most Democratic factions, and his LDS faith is considered an asset. As the Democratic Party moves toward the center, it will again become a comfortable place for Mormons.

While evangelical Christians dominate the Republican Party, Mormons can visit and enjoy guest privileges at the elite GOP Club — but will never be full-fledged members. At the sweaty, grimy gymnasium that is the Democratic Party, LDS citizens are welcome — just bring disinfectant.

Webb: Nice try, Frank, but that's one big, fat turkey you're trying to foist upon the good readers of the Deseret Morning News — the idea that Mormons aren't welcome at the top levels of the Republican Party. Truth is, the GOP tent is plenty large to accommodate Mormons at all levels. No need to become a Democrat.

Certainly, some elements of the evangelical Christian right don't like Mormons and wouldn't vote for a Mormon for president. But I'm willing to bet (and I bet the Mitt Romney folks have hard survey research data on this) that the number of conservative Republicans (and national Republican delegates) who would reject a solid Mormon Republican solely on doctrinal theological grounds is really quite small. Voting rationale is complex, and only the most unreasonable diehard evangelical would vote exclusively on theological grounds.

A 2004 CBS News/New York Times GOP delegate poll found 33 percent described themselves as evangelical. But evangelical covers a lot of ground in the world of religion and not all evangelicals would automatically reject a Mormon. Believe it or not, there exist quite a few evangelical Democrats, including 13 percent of the 2004 Democratic delegates.

Despite the Mormon issue, a lot of national analysts and pundits put Romney in the top four or five GOP presidential prospects. A large part of the Republican base is the business or "main street" wing of the party, which thinks Mormons are just terrific.

What's more, the GOP front-runner right now is Sen. John McCain, a guy the evangelicals dislike even more than Romney. The evangelicals may oppose Romney on theological grounds, but they question McCain's fundamental conservative credentials.

Having close ties with Mormons might even benefit a presidential candidate. National GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman, speaking in Utah several days ago, said that in the party's final get-out-the-vote drive in 2004, one out of four of the volunteers nationally was an LDS Church member. Mormons are very active politically, with high enough numbers to make a real difference in a handful of key swing states.

Meanwhile, the idea that religion precludes a Mormon from making it to the top levels of GOP congressional leadership is just absolutely untrue. I don't think any member of the Utah delegation (or any of the 17 LDS members in Congress) would say their religion is a hindrance in moving up the leadership ladder. Congressional leaders have built seniority and respect among their peers. They get to know each other very well. It would be ludicrous to say that Sen. Bob Bennett's religion is in any way hampering his leadership ascendancy.

Mormons are actually a bit overrepresented in Congress. Some 2 percent of the nation's population is Mormon, but 3 percent of U.S. House members are Mormon and 5 percent of the Senate.

I think it's terrific that, as Frank says, Mormons are welcome in the national Democratic Party. That's certainly healthy for the Democrats. Ironically, such a welcoming attitude hasn't always been the case in Utah. I've talked to plenty of Utah Mormon Democrats who have felt that some top Democrats who are not LDS have not been particularly warm toward active LDS who seek top party posts or candidacies. Some Utah Democrats remain highly resentful of LDS clout and influence in Utah politics and a clear LDS/non-LDS schism has existed in the Utah party that, on occasion, flares into the open.


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: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. A former candidate for Salt Lake mayor, Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.