Faith in Politics: Latter-day Saint Politicians on Religion and Public Service

Mormon politicians have long influenced the political landscape in the  United States and abroad. But in their efforts to serve their countries, they are often faced with a number of challenges ranging from defending their religion to potential voters, to balancing their personal beliefs with the will of the people they represent, to defending their political views to fellow Church members. Here is what some past and present LDS elected officials are saying about their experience in public service and how their faith has shaped their political careers. 

“I believe in God. I’m a good Christian. I’m very proud of my Mormon heritage. I am Mormon,” former governor Jon Huntsman Jr. recently told Good Morning America. He then added, “Today, there are thirteen million Mormons. It’s a very diverse and heterogeneous cross-section of people. And you’re going to find a lot of different attitudes and a lot of different opinions in that thirteen million.”

Without a doubt, Huntsman is navigating new political waters as the national media, and some Latter-day Saints, place his Mormon faith under a microscope in anticipation of a presidential run. Just eight days prior to Huntsman’s Good Morning America appearance, Time magazine reported Huntsman as saying his church membership was “tough to define.”

Fellow Republican and presidential candidate Mitt Romney endured similar scrutiny during his 2008 presidential run, eventually addressing it head-on in his speech “Faith in America,” in which he stated, “I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it.” In that same speech, he assured voters that he would “put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office” and shared his belief that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.”

No other presidential candidate was asked to defend or clarify his religious beliefs to such an extent, and this time around, Romney appears to be less willing to tolerate it. When asked by CNN in June, “What is the Mormon position on homosexuality being a sin?” Romney responded, “I’m not a spokesman for my church. And one thing I’m not going to do in running for president is become a spokesman for my church or apply a religious test that is simply forbidden by the constitution.” He continued, “If you want to learn about my church, talk to my church.”

Interestingly, another high profile LDS politician, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—a Democrat—does not seem to face as much scrutiny from voters for his religious beliefs as he does from fellow Church members for his political views, which are often dissected and sometimes criticized.

In a speech given at BYU in 2007, Reid declared, “I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it.” He then went on to explain that “government can be our friend,” and that, despite belonging to the Democratic Party, “I am pro-life, and for the twenty-five years I have been in Congress have always been pro-life.”

Certainly LDS politicians at every level of government face a myriad of unique challenges, so LDS Living sought out five such politicians and asked them to share some of their experiences and insights on being a Mormon and an elected official.

Former U.S. Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon)

Gordon Smith was born in Pendleton, Oregon, and grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. He served an LDS mission to New Zealand. Smith graduated from Brigham Young University in 1976. he went on to receive a law degree from Southwestern University School of Law. He served in the Oregon State Senate from 1992 to 1997 and the United States Senate from 1997 to 2009. Gordon and his wife, Sharon, live in Bethesda Maryland.

The message of the letter was brief and clear: “Senator, get cancer and die.”

“The letter had arrived soon after Oregonians voted to legalize assisted suicide, and I had expressed my continued opposition to state involvement in taking human life, except when necessary in the defense of its citizens,” recalls former U.S. Senator Gordon Smith. “Not all of my beliefs, I had said, were subject to majority vote or given to change because of an election. Otherwise, the people would be better off with representation from a weather vane.”

Smith says he was accused of putting a religious belief (thou shalt not kill) ahead of majority opinion (the state should assist the terminally ill to commit suicide). “True enough, I had,” he explains.

“Religion and politics are a fiery mixture, yet Latter-day Saint leaders urge our involvement in civic affairs,” he says. “This involvement, at the most, means running for and serving in elective office and, at the least, means being a regular and informed voter.”

But what should Latter-day Saints be informed about and believe among all the contending political voices? Smith points to Doctrine & Covenants 134:2. “The Lord and His Church care about three essential, but general, principles: the free exercise of conscience, the right to control property, and the protection of life. Within the boundaries of these three principles, our political allegiances tend to be formed by our parentage, our economic circumstances, our educational attainments, and our life experiences, which in aggregate determine our values, views, and interests. If we realize this about ourselves, we should be able to remember and respect it in others, those whose lives and political views may be quite different from our own,” he says.

“It takes only a little bit of charity to foster civility in political discourse—something badly, sadly, needed in our public squares today,” he adds. “There are eternal principles involving issues so important that they must never be the subjects of compromise. Fortunately, however, since the founding of the American Republic, most issues arising in day-to-day political debate can be the subjects of honorable compromise. If it were otherwise, bloodshed, not ballots, would have colored more of our history.”

To read Senator Smith’s essay on the national debt, click here

State Senator Ben McAdams (D-Utah)

Ben McAdams received his JD degree from Columbia Law School and a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of Utah. He currently serves in the Utah State Senate. He is a senior advisor for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, and has worked as an attorney for Dorsey and Whitney law firm, and as an adjunct professor at the University of Utah. Ben and his wife, Julie, have 3 children and live in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“More than once, I have been asked how I can be a good Mormon and also a Democrat,” says Utah State Senator Ben McAdams. “There are tenets of the LDS faith, such as caring for the sick and the needy, seeking an education, and being good stewards of the earth—those things are very much parallel with my faith, and I believe I’m magnifying my faith by advocating some of the things I advocate for.”

McAdams says his LDS mission to Brazil is what inspired him to pursue a career in politics. “On my mission I saw abject poverty. Education was largely available only to the wealthy. I came back from my mission wanting to be involved, wanting to make the world a better place.”

Some of McAdams’s early work as a politician has been regarding discrimination, including protection for gays and lesbians. “Those protections against discrimination aren’t inconsistent with traditional family,” he explains. “We have been a minority in communities where as a faith we have been discriminated against and persecuted. Because of our history, I think we can find it in ourselves to see that others should have protection against discrimination, even though their beliefs may run contrary to our own.”

Another hot-button issue for Utah legislators is immigration, and McAdams says he supports a compassionate approach. “I believe in a rule of law, but at the same time, there is a greater law—love thy neighbor. People are being forced to leave their families behind to go back to their native countries. We need to consider the eternal principle of the family,” he says. “Certainly our immigration laws are broken and need to be fixed, but we need to do it in a way that shows compassion for individuals and keeps families together.”

McAdams says that no political platform is going to be 100 percent in harmony with the teachings of the Church, and that it’s good to have Mormons in both political parties. “Church members are largely seen as Republicans. That can be a disadvantage to us because it means that Democrats are going to write us off. At the same time, Republicans write us off because they feel we’ll vote for whomever they put forward. We’re not a vote that’s up for grabs.”

According to McAdams, another benefit to having Latter-day Saints in different parties is to foster a spirit of cooperation and bipartisanship. “It results in better government policies,” he says. “I frequently disagree with my Republican colleagues. Despite our disagreements, I respect their efforts to work for the good and safety of society. When we disagree, we will often negotiate a compromise that is acceptable to all sides. Even though our compromises are not entirely what I advocated, or what others advocated, it is often a better result for the public whom we are elected to represent.”

“There needs to be less black and white, Republican and Democrat, and more reaching across the aisle,” he adds. “We have a lot more in common than what divides us.”

Mayor and Presidential Candidate N. Yeah Samake (Mali)

Yeah Samake currently works as Executive Director at Mali Rising Foundation and serves as the vice president of the Mali League of Mayors. He has a master's of public policy from Brigham Young University. Samake, a native of mali, serves as the mayor of Ouelessebougou, Mali. He and his wife, Marissa, have 2 children.

Yeah Samake was born and raised in Ouelessebougou, Mali, the eighth of 18 children. Though drought and poverty has ravaged the small West African country since its inception just 50 years ago, Samake’s parents made every effort to ensure he and his siblings attended school. “My father knew the only way to break the cycle of poverty was through education,” he says.

After earning a degree in teaching English, Samake discovered there were no jobs for him. “I decided to go back home to my village, where I offered to teach English for free for three years,” he recalls. “It helped me to deepen my roots with my community, and I was able to afford the admiration of my city.”

Samake had met a couple of LDS families, and after visiting them in the United States in 2000, he decided to join the Church. He went on to earn a master’s degree in public policy from BYU.

Samake says he always knew he wanted to be involved in politics. “For me, politics is the way of solving problems in the community, and I wanted to be in a leadership position to be able to solve problems.” Wanting to improve health care, education, and employment, Samake felt compelled to run for mayor of Ouelessebougou in 2009. “The country is 90 percent Muslim, so I made sure to tell people that I was LDS. But as I made it an issue, people were asking me, ‘Why are you talking about this? We trust you.’”

According to Samake, leaders at the local level were viewed with suspicion. “There was a complete distrust between the people and the mayor’s office, to the point that people would not pay their taxes. The tax collection rate had dropped below 10 percent, and that was concerning.” He continues, “I told the voters, ‘Together, we can change this city. How? You pay your taxes, and we will use all of the tax money efficiently. I will inform you of how much money was raised and how much was spent. None of it will go to me. If you trust me, you will see the result.’ They had never heard anything like this before,” he recalls. Samake was elected mayor with 86 percent of the vote. “In less than two years since my election, there was a significant increase in tax collection. We are at about 70 percent today.”

Inspired by the organization of the Church, Samake created a kind of “elders quorum” to ensure complete financial transparency. Each of the 44 villages in Ouelessebougou was asked to select two trusted emissaries who would meet together to discuss the issues in their villages. “Most importantly, I share with them how much each village has paid in taxes and how much money was spent,” Samake explains. “It truly brought Ouelessebougou to a new level. The mayors of other cities saw what was going on and elected me to be vice president of the league of mayors, which is usually reserved for mayors serving their second or usually third term. I am the advocate between the mayors and the central government.”

When the president of Mali came to Ouelessebougou in January for the dedication of a solar-powered field, Samake spoke boldly to him during a public speech. “I challenged him, explaining what the citizens expect of his leadership, which was unusual,” he recalls. “Some in the audience, including some very close advisors to the president, came to me and said, ‘We are looking for someone who can inspire this country. The president cannot run for reelection, and we think you should consider running. We will back you up. It became popular demand for me to run for president.’” 

Samake is currently in the midst of fundraising for his presidential campaign. The election will take place on April 8, 2012, and Samake anticipates his opponents will raise the question of his faith as a scare tactic. “I hope they do,” he says. “I’m excited to talk about my faith—it’s who I am.”

He concludes, “If I don’t get anything out of this election but to inspire the people of my country, that is a victory for me. Ultimately I want to be the leader, but if I can’t, I can still be an agent of change.”

State Representative Liz Bangerter (R-Montana)

Liz Bangerter was elected to the Montana House of Representatives in 2010 and began serving in 2011. Bangerter graduated from Central Wyoming College with an associate's degree and Universitiy of Montana-Helena College of Technology with a certificate in Medical Office Technology. She was raised in a small town in Wyoming and is the youngest of 6 children. Liz and her husband, Carl Bangerter, have been married for 17 years and currently live in Helena, Montana. The Bangerters have 3 girls.

State Representative Liz Bangerter grew up in a family where community service was strongly encouraged. “My parents always said they wanted us to be ‘contributing members of society,’” she recalls. “Everything we did as children revolved around serving others.”

Because of her involvement in the community, she was asked to run for office by some other LDS legislators. “I fasted and prayed about it for a long time before I decided what to do. I love to serve and volunteer, so I went for it.”

The odds were not in her favor—a Republican hadn’t held the seat in that district for several years. “Nobody thought I could win,” she recalls. “The party was not helpful.” Despite being an unknown, the mother of three was elected by a significant margin—the first Mormon woman to be elected to the Montana Legislature.

Bangerter was assigned to sit on the Judiciary Committee, the Health and Human Services Committee, and the Local Government Committee, each of which was facing controversial issues: medical marijuana, DUI laws, and physician-assisted suicide. “The whole session was about praying for discernment—who to trust, how to be a tool.”

Bangerter says many legislators didn’t know she was LDS until about the first week on the job. “Someone was criticizing one of the other LDS legislators, and there were some derogatory remarks about Mormons, but I spoke up and said I was a Mormon, too.”

Despite that experience, Bangerter says, “Most people were open and accepting of my faith. I do think people kind of respect it. In the long run, it probably worked to my advantage.”

She also says her mothering skills have come in handy in the political arena. “Being a mother, I’ve learned there are always two sides of the story. After I’ve listened, I’ll say, ‘Tell me what your opponents are going to say. Now tell me what the proponents are going to say. Let’s understand everyone’s perspective and find middle ground.” She continues, “In politics, people often say, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ I prefer to vote the merits of the bill and put personal feelings aside. And if I gave someone my word, I really did it, even if later I thought it was a mistake. My word is more important to me than making my party happy.”

Former Senator Jeffrey Max Jones (Mexico)

Jeffrey Max Jones is from Nuevo Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico. He graduated from Brigham Young University in international relations in 1982. He represented Chihuahua's First District in the Chamger of Deputies from 1997 to 2000. In 2000 he was elected to serve in the national Senado de la Republica (Senate) for the state of Chihuahua. From 2006 to 2009, Jones served as Undersecretary of Agribusiness Development for Secretaria de Agricultura, Ganaderia, Desarolio, Rural, Pesca y Alimentacíon (SAGRAPA).

“When I first decided to run as a senator in Mexico, my first inclination was not to have commitments with any political party,” Senator Jones recalls. “The liberal Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had ruled the country for seventy years. I was convinced there should be a change, with different alternatives to political power in Mexico.”

In order to run for office, Jones either had to align with a current party or create his own. He didn’t have time to create his own, so he ultimately aligned with the National Action Party (PAN), considered center-right in the Mexican political spectrum. “My only real inclination was to try and offer more alternatives within the PRI party, but it had a level of corruption that made me politically motivated against it,” he says.

In 1997, when Jones was sworn into the lower house of Mexico’s Federal Congress, known as the Chamber of Deputies, there were five legislators that had LDS backgrounds—two from the Catholic-leaning PAN party, of which Jones was now part, and three from the old guard PRI party. He recalls, “It had been a very tense and difficult few days leading up to the installation process of the five hundred new Diputados Federales, or legislators. It was the first time the PRI party had lost the absolute majority in the lower house, yet they still had the relative majority, just less than 50 percent. Opposition parties had sequestered their members over the last few days to reduce the possibility that the PRI would buy off opposition members and regain over 50 percent.”

He continues, “In this setting, all opposition parties were suspicious of any discussion or contact between their members and anyone from the PRI party. At the highlight of these days of tension, as all five hundred of us waited for Presidente Zedillo to deliver his Informe, or State of the Union, three of us LDS members walked up near the podium and had our picture taken together. Many eyed us suspiciously, knowing that we were from different parties. As we posed and sensed the furtive looks, one of us, Salvador Ordaz Montes de Oca from the PRI party, said, ‘They don't realize that we are united by a higher cause.’ All three of us smiled at each other in agreement with the comment.”

According to Jones, Salvador had spent several years trying to create a Mormon, or Mormon-leaning, party. While he admired Salvador’s efforts to create this new party, Jones disagreed with his vision of creating a Mormon party, believing that the Church would be better served by members of the LDS faith participating and becoming influences for good in many different parties.

“I think that’s part of being LDS—being non-partisan,” says Jones. “We’re taught to find the truth wherever it is. That’s what I always tell them down there; even though I’m not a member of the PRI party, as a member of a non-Catholic religion, I very much appreciate what the liberal movement did in Mexico in terms of separation of church and state. I think those are two major pillars to increase democracy, especially in Mexico—having alternatives for religion and having alternatives in terms of political parties. I think that creates greater openness and greater competition. And I think it’s better for everyone in Mexico to be able to have that.”

Read the full article in the July/August 2011 issue of LDS Living.

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