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Reid gets warm reception at BYU

He says he’s a Demo because of his faith and not in spite of it

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, talks with BYU student Andres Parada on Tuesday after his address to 4,091 people at a BYU forum.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, talks with BYU student Andres Parada on Tuesday after his address to 4,091 people at a BYU forum.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

PROVO — Some past prominent LDS Church leaders wrongly pressed conservatism on church members, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday during a press conference at Brigham Young University.

The Nevada senator attacked President Bush and evangelical Christians while saying members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints need to worry less about abortion and gay marriage and more about health care, global warming, education and jobs.

Reid first spent 40 minutes delivering a well-received and sometimes tender BYU forum speech in the Marriott Center to 4,091 students, faculty, staff and visitors. He described a journey from an underprivileged, non-religious childhood in tiny Searchlight, Nev., to his position as the highest-ranking Mormon in American government.

"Democrats have not always been in the (church's) minority, and I believe we won't be for too long," he said.

He elaborated during a harder-hitting, 12-minute press conference. "The best missionary we have for that is George Bush," he said. "People are switching parties all over the country."

Reid said Ezra Taft Benson, active in very conservative politics before he became a president of the LDS Church, and Ernest L. Wilkinson, the president of BYU from 1951-71, were among past church leaders "who were very right-wing people politically."

"Members of the church are obedient," Reid said, "they are followers in the truest sense of the word, and I think they've taken members of the church down a path that is the wrong path. Look at Joseph Smith. Here's a man who was progressive, to say the least. He broke from the pack. He did things differently than they'd been done. He was against slavery. He wanted to start a national bank.

"I think people in the church have to understand there are issues more important than abortion and gay marriage."

During his speech, Reid addressed the questions he gets from LDS Church members about how he can be LDS and a Democrat. "I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it," he said.

Reid called President Bush's decision to invade Iraq "the worst foreign policy blunder in our country's history," drawing applause from a substantial portion of the audience. A similar number applauded when he gave equal time to the other side: "Some say this war of choice was our only reasonable alternative."

Afterward, he told reporters that congressional Republicans have poorly represented mainstream Republicans in recent years.

"They have focused on just a few issues, flag-burning, gay marriage, abortion," Reid said. "The country has gone beyond that to other issues. We have a country that needs to do something about health care. Global warming is here. We have a president who doesn't know how to pronounce the words."

Reid also told reporters the Republican Party has been driven by evangelical Christians for 20 years. "They are the most anti-Christian people I can imagine, the people from the Christian far right."

Many LDS Church members turned to the Republican Party because the pro-life, traditional marriage platforms backed by evangelicals are similar to LDS Church positions. But, Reid said, his 25 years in Congress are proof that Mormons can be pro-life Democrats. He noted that American abortion law, in large part, has been settled by courts, not political parties, Congress or state legislatures.

Reid addressed his LDS faith, bearing testimony of his belief in Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, the Book of Mormon and the prophethood of both church founder Joseph Smith and current LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley.

He also described his and his family's faithfulness, noting his five children attended BYU and married in LDS temples. The three boys served LDS missions.

"Prayer has always been an important part of my adult life," he said.

He doesn't listen to church members who question his faithfulness, he told reporters. "I don't have to answer to any of them. When I go to get my (temple) recommend, they're never present."

The university's board of trustees invited Reid months before Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at BYU's April commencement exercises, which drew more than 20,000 people and several protests by students, veterans and others. Commencements often draw up to 20,000, while forums rarely crest 6,000.

BYU President Cecil Samuelson was the only LDS Church general authority on the stand Tuesday, but he said the university was "very pleased" to welcome Reid, and a church spokesman said LDS leaders hosted Reid at a dinner in Salt Lake City on Monday.

At the end of his speech, Reid earned a standing ovation from a small percentage of the crowd and applause from the rest.

"I was impressed with him," said Stacie Borneman, a 22-year-old political science major from Farmington who said she is a Republican. "I thought he did a good job expressing his feelings and our responsibility to serve in our communities. It's good to hear differing opinions and to be respectful, even if you don't agree politically, and he gave both sides of the issues he raised."

There were no organized protests of Reid's visit and no protest signs. One person did begin to walk out between the end of Reid's speech and the traditional closing prayer, shouting that students should not be deceived by Reid.

Reid encouraged students to get involved in public service, telling them the American dream is alive.

His father was a hard-rock miner. To make ends meet, his mother took in laundry from the town's 13 brothels.

"I learned in America, it doesn't matter the education of your parents, what their religion is or isn't, their social status — we had none — the color of their skin or their economic status.

"I am an example of this. If I made it, anyone can."

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com