One of the most insidious aspects of political hostilities today is the way they can burn holes in longtime relationships — within marriages, families, friendships and formerly close communities of many kinds.

Yet, it is striking to see how comparatively robust many faith communities are proving to be when it comes to withstanding these political tensions overall.

Like other religious communities, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are certainly not immune to these tensions. To better understand how Latter-day Saints are weathering the political storm in the United States, the Deseret News spoke with a number of members supporting either major party candidate and others still undecided.

Political differences as an asset

There is new evidence that these political differences can be a surprising strength, rather than only a liability. University of Arkansas professor Rebecca Glazier has studied the role of diverse faith congregations in nurturing civil society for 15 years in Little Rock, as reported in her forthcoming book with Temple University Press on how community engagement “strengthens members, places of worship and society.”

Contrary to what people might expect, this Latter-day Saint scholar says that when there is “more ideological diversity” in a faith community, “those congregations have a greater sense of warmth and a higher sense of political efficacy” — meaning, they feel they can make a difference.

Glazier says this is because ongoing, warm relationships in faith communities are “forcing people to really see each other as people.”

“If they know they are worshiping with people they politically disagree with, they have to reconcile that dissonance,” she explains. “You don’t have to work to overcome those barriers if there is homogeneity.”

New evidence suggests Latter-day Saints may be uniquely divided about this upcoming presidential election, with recent survey data documenting majorities of members having an “unfavorable” view of both major candidates. That led pollster Daniel Cox to conclude that “no group of voters” were “more dissatisfied with their choices” in the U.S. presidential election than Latter-day Saint voters. At the same time, sizable numbers of members indicate they would still be willing to vote for President Biden (17%) or former President Trump (49%).

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Serving together drawing hearts closer

How do people of faith come together despite these kinds of significant differences politically or otherwise? Glazier has also observed in her years of community-based research that believers who really get to know each other by serving together are especially resistant to political hostilities.

“When you have to serve together in the (Latter-day Saint) Primary presidency, when your kids are in Young Women’s together, when you’re flipping pancakes together at a ward Memorial Day breakfast, when you take meals to sick people, you get to know each other as real people,” she said. “It’s hard to demonize each other when you’re working together and serving together.”

Mark McSwain, who has served in various roles in his Latter-day Saint congregation, recalled serving in a calling with a strong Democrat, “and I am a very conservative Republican.”

Yet the focus was never “he’s a Democrat or a Republican,” he said, “because we’re talking about the Lord’s work — and there’s no place for bickering about politics when you are seeking revelation that will bless the lives of people.”

Riley Duke told me about being warmly welcomed into his Latter-day Saint ward by Wally Goddard, a retired family studies professor, who has very different views than he does about the upcoming U.S. presidential election. He and his young family felt relished and supported by Wally and his wife Nancy at church, and were invited into their home for dinner. “And he didn’t even ask me who I was planning to vote for” before he was befriended, Duke said with a smile — pointing to their common faith in Jesus Christ as a deeper bond transcending everything else.

In fostering these kinds of durable relationships, the size of the congregation matters. According to Glazier’s data, it’s easier to have a politically diverse congregation when the numbers are 250 individuals or smaller, since it’s harder to get to know people in a vast sea of nameless congregants.

Goddard called today’s political landscape cynical. “It is popular to dismiss those who disagree with us with a wave of our partisan hands,” he said. “Our democracy is in grave danger if Satan can continue to grow our national division.”

Fighting instead of problem-solving

James Rees, visiting professor at Brigham Young University in art education, notes that intense polarization also makes practical solutions hard to find on either side — something he’s experienced firsthand with his immigrant wife. He describes their frustrations as a family that more reasonable pathways to naturalization are unavailable.

Rather than Congress advancing legislation that supports regulation at the border, while facilitating those qualified people who want to come, Rees has felt disheartened to see both parties fall into extremes — whether overly strict or humane, thereby creating more problems without providing any additional resources to help.

“People get so focused on this big nebulous war that the actual productive battles to improve our communities get completely lost in the fray,” says Utah-based artist Esther Hi’ilani Candari. “Fixated on this big battle of evil, people can’t come to the table, because they think they will be compromising their values.”

“My faith teaches me to approach contentious issues with compassion and curiosity,” she said — mentioning that “there’s vitriol on both sides” in American politics.

McSwain also worries there are real-life consequences of the relentless fighting for our basic ability to solve problems. “Councils are part of what makes the world and the church great,” he said, describing how often he has witnessed clearer understanding emerge in church councils as men and women put their best ideas together.

“If it’s nothing but our leaders arguing back in Washington, they lose the ability to receive revelation.”

Beyond us vs. them

Despite all this, it’s been a revelation for many to discover the extent to which thoughtful, good-hearted people can disagree on so many important things. After witnessing fellow Latter-day Saints reaching widely different conclusions about politics, speech therapist Nathan Richardson described returning home and teaching his children, “these are all intelligent covenant-keeping Saints, and look how they’re coming down on different sides of these issues.

“There’s not necessarily a once-and-for-all revealed position on most news headlines,” Richardson said.

About his friends who support the former president, Rees said they have arrived at a place of “isn’t it great that we’re friends in spite of disagreeing on certain things?”

No two people agree on every element, he said. “We’re just not agreeing on that issue, and that’s OK.”

“That’s part of the beauty of having a community,” Rees says — including both a faith community and a university community. “Multi-perspective views can make for a wider vision and a stronger community.”

BYU — the most politically balanced university in America?

This stands in sharp contrast to a message he increasingly sees among some students, one that essentially communicates, “If I don’t agree with you, then I can’t like you and can’t be respectful.”

Young people are getting that from “all the political spin,” he believes — coming away feeling like “you’re either for me or against me.”

There are certain other institutional norms that push back on these extremes in the faith, and which help support balance. For instance, respected norms against raising political issues in Sunday meetings and leaders regularly issuing letters like this from the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from June 1, 2023:

“Some principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties, and members should seek candidates who best embody those principles.”

“Members should also study candidates carefully and vote for those who have demonstrated integrity, compassion, and service to others, regardless of party affiliation. Merely voting a straight ticket or voting based on ‘tradition’ without careful study of candidates and their positions on important issues is a threat to democracy and inconsistent with revealed standards.”

Opting out of divisive exchange

If significant differences in political perspective exist, not all fellow believers are eager to talk about them openly. “Trump-related conversations seem really hard,” said Virginia-based author Nathaniel Givens. “Even among friends who share the same faith. Which is sad.”

“I avoid political online discussions altogether now,” said data analyst Dallin Crump.

“It’s more and more difficult to have an honest conversation about this without getting emotional,” this man continued, which is “usually why I graciously bow out.”

How we talk still matters

Michael Taylor, a civil engineer from northern Utah, expressed concern about not finding candidates with “better statesmanship and civility.”

Whoever they are voting for, Latter-day Saints tend to agree on this point.

“There’s a time to stand behind one’s ideology and other times when you need to broker compromise,” Taylor continued. “I believe it takes wisdom to know the difference.”

Remarking on senators and congressmen getting booed and accosted on airplanes or other public areas, McSwain said, “We’ve lost a remarkable respect for offices and the ability to be statesmen. … We’ve gotten so used to mocking people in respected positions” that we’ve forgotten “the government built around these roles is inspired.”

“I might not always agree with Mitt Romney on politics, but I know he’s a good man.”

To those who insist politicians are “all crooks,” this man pushes back. “No, they’re not all crooks. ... They just differ from us in their opinions.”

Differentiating politics and salvation

“I haven’t outsourced my morality, identity or my religion to politics,” said Washington, D.C.-based writer Walker Wright, when asked to explain what differentiates him from other believers who have embraced the culture war rhetoric more fully.

“I don’t make politics my religion,” he added. “It’s not the ultimate way of showing you are a good or bad person.”

“Too many of us are looking at our faith through the lens of politics,” Crump said, which means “we’ve got it backward.” By “looking at politics through the lens of our faith,” he said, we’re able to “put our divine identity above all identities we have.”

“We might identify as a Republican or Democrat, Utah Jazz or Phoenix Suns fans, but that should all be subservient to our primary identity: children of a loving Heavenly Father who wants us to come home, and put in place a Savior to make that happen.”

So much hope and joy available


Part of Givens’ sadness in watching American politics is knowing how much happiness and peace people could be feeling. “The whole message of Christianity is that the war is already over. So any given battle doesn’t matter so much, because we know how the story ends.”

“Obviously, we want what’s best for our country. We want righteous leaders, but it’s not existential. Salvation is not dependent on winning an election.”

Yes, “the stakes are real,” clarified Givens, the author of “Into the Headwinds: Why Belief Has Always Been Hard―and Still Is.” “This isn’t about opting out and the only thing that matters is the kingdom of God. But we know there’s going to be a happy ending eventually.”

“We’re not in denial of the darkness” and the fact that we’re in a “dark part of the story,” he said. But even with “full awareness” of what’s going wrong, “no matter what happens, we have that hope for how things will turn out in the end.”

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