How Mormons fed up with Trump could help lift Biden in Arizona

Hank Stephenson, The New York Times

Posted at Oct 19 2020 09:43 AM | Updated as of Oct 19 2020 03:02 PM

How Mormons fed up with Trump could help lift Biden in Arizona 1
Dan and Nan Barker, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who remain Republicans but do not support President Donald Trump, with the “Arizona Republicans for Biden” campaign yard sign that they created, at their home in Gilbert, Ariz., Sept. 7, 2020. Loyalty to the Republican Party is ingrained in the Latter-day Saints religion, but in Arizona, some find the president’s behavior at odds with their values, and are shifting to Joe Biden. Cassidy Araiza/The New York Times

TUCSON, Ariz. — For the better part of a century, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have made their political home under the Republican Party’s tent, motivated by conservative beliefs rooted in the family values, personal liberty and economic frugality of their faith.

But some church members now find themselves in a political quandary: They’re still Republicans, but they no longer fit in with the party as exemplified by President Donald Trump, who for them represents a hard departure from the church’s teachings on sex, crude language, empathy and humility.

In Arizona — the only state up for grabs that has a significant Latter-day Saint population — a growing number are finding refuge in Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee.

“I think the White House should be worried about LDS voters, especially in Arizona,” said Quin Monson, a Utah-based pollster, political scientist and author of a book about the politics of the religion.

Most church members are still likely to support the president again this year, Monson said, noting that party loyalty is ingrained in the religion. They agree with Trump more than they disagree with him, and for many, the issue of abortion is a litmus test that few Democratic candidates can pass.

Still, exit polling from 2016 showed 56% of church members supported Trump, far less than the support he received from members of other faiths. Trump, for instance, won almost 80% of the white evangelical Christian vote.

Even a small shift in Latter-day Saints’ voting patterns could have a large impact in Arizona. There are about 437,000 members of the faith in the state, though that number includes children; Trump won by just 91,000 votes in 2016. With well-educated suburbanites already moving away from the president, the race is expected to be considerably closer this year.

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Despite their reservations about Trump in 2016, members of the faith largely fell into familiar voting patterns, supporting Trump or begrudgingly casting their votes for a third-party candidate.

But Biden doesn’t cause the same reluctance among some Latter-day Saints as Hillary Clinton did. They like his temperament and personality, arguing that the warmth and empathy he displays much more closely mirrors the behaviors that the church demands of its followers than Trump’s grating style.

Rob Taber, head of the LDS Democrats of America, has been courting Latter-day Saints for the Democratic Party since 2012, when Mitt Romney, perhaps the world’s most famous church member, was the Republican nominee.

He said his job had become considerably easier in recent years.

He said he understands how isolating it can be for church members who don’t support the Republican nominee, and he is trying to create “a home for the politically homeless” in the Biden campaign.

“We like to say, converts are welcome,” he said. “But this election, visitors are welcome.”

Although the current Supreme Court vacancy could have the potential to bring more Latter-day Saints home to the Republican Party, Matt Miles, a political scientist at Brigham Young University in Idaho, said that if it was filled before the election, as expected, members of the faith who were opposed to Trump would have less incentive to jump back into his camp.

“Voters don’t reward politicians for things they’ve done in the past; they vote for things that are going to happen in the future,” he said.

Kirk Adams, a church member who served as chief of staff to Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, a Republican, and was the former speaker of the state’s House of Representatives, agreed that the motivation would diminish once Judge Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed. But he said that for now, having the Supreme Court nomination and the issue of abortion front and center helped Republicans to make the race about more traditional conservative issues like abortion rather than just supporting Trump.

Four years ago, Dan Barker, a retired state court of appeals judge and a Republican, couldn’t bring himself to support Trump, who he said was not capable of the kind of moral leadership that he wanted in a president. For the same reason, he couldn’t support Clinton. Instead, he wrote in Romney on his ballot.

“This year is different for two reasons,” he said. “I have stronger feelings about what would happen to our country with four more years of our current president, and Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton.”

He and his wife Nan Barker, also a Republican, decided to put a sign for the Democrat in their yard this year, but they didn’t want people to think they had abandoned the Republican Party. So they printed signs that said “Arizona Republicans for Biden” that they could give to friends.

Dan Barker said he was not trying to persuade fellow members of the faith to join their cause; he was trying to embolden them to do what he believed many already wanted to do.

“We’re saying you’re not alone,” he said.

The Latter-day Saints’ relationship with the federal government is complicated, and some members support Trump precisely because he is shaking up the government.

“The institutional norms sort of seem to be dissolving, and there’s a group of Mormon Republicans that loves that; that’s exactly what they want,” Miles, the BYU political scientist, said. “They would be happy to see the federal government not gone away, but really, really weak.”

There is a large group of Latter-day Saints whose members don’t like Trump’s style, but they say his policies on abortion and conservative court appointments outweigh their personal distaste for him. For many of them, supporting the president’s reelection is an easy decision.

Justin Olson, an elected utility regulator and former state lawmaker who was invited to be part of the president’s Latter-day Saint coalition in Arizona, is solidly behind the president now, though he said he was initially hesitant to support Trump four years ago.

He was suspicious that Trump wasn’t a real conservative and wouldn’t follow through on the policies that he had espoused on the campaign trail. But the president has not disappointed him, Olson said.

“The question comes down to a question of policy versus personality,” he said. “And to me, policy matters most because it’s going to impact our country for generations to come.”

Biden frequently talks about his Catholic faith on the campaign trail, telling of how it helped him survive the death of his first wife and child and, years later, his adult son.

Myrna Sheppard, a retired teacher and former school board member, said Biden’s orations on his faith touched her deeply as someone who has also lost a child.

“I was moved to tears over that,” she said. “And I thought, wow, this guy gets it. He gets me. And Trump is the exact opposite. He doesn’t even have the capacity for empathy.”

The 2016 election was the first time in her life that she didn’t support the Republican nominee. But like Dan Barker, she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Clinton, either.

Instead, she backed a write-in candidate, Evan McMullin, who made an eleventh hour independent bid for the presidency from his home state of Utah and earned 21.5% of the vote there to Trump’s 45.5%. McMullin, a church member, has said he plans to vote for Biden this year.

Sheppard celebrated Trump’s judicial appointments, but his anti-abortion policies aren’t enough to redeem his presidency, which has been marred by his disrespect toward women, people of color and the office, she said.

This year, she is supporting Biden, despite her reservations about his liberal policies.

“Honestly, I was tempted to do something like write in Mitt Romney,” she said. “But my husband said, ‘No, we are a swing state, and we need to take a stand.’”

Sheppard said as a lifelong conservative, she’s a big fan of Barrett’s constitutional conservative approach and feels a kinship with her as a fellow mother of a big family. But at this point, nothing could convince her to vote for Trump.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints diverges from the president on several policy fronts. It takes a more empathetic stance on immigration and refugees, positions informed by its global reach, legion of missionaries and the church’s own history as an unwelcome religious minority in the country.

When Trump, as a candidate, called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, the church took the unusual step of issuing a statement that said although it is neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns, it “is not neutral in relation to religious freedom.”

More recently, the church reiterated that believers should volunteer their time, talents and friendship to refugees immigrating to the country.

Christie Black, a 36-year-old Latter-day Saints church member from Mesa, has taken that call to heart, volunteering with Syrian refugees in Arizona and forming deep relationships with refugee families.

A staunch Republican, she didn’t support either party’s nominee in 2016. Since then, her political views have shifted, and she first became an independent, then joined the Democrats.

Trump’s demagoguery of Muslims and refugees is directly at odds with her faith, she said.

“We’re a global church, and his kind of isolationism is contrary to who we are as members of the faith,” she said.

Bob Worsley, a former Republican state lawmaker and founder of SkyMall magazine, said that although he supports many of Trump’s conservative policies, his religious beliefs prevent him from backing the president’s campaign of anger, fear and vitriol.

“That’s not what I’m taught in the pews of my church,” he said. “Anger and discord is considered to come from another influence, not God.”

He and his wife Christi Worsley will vote for Biden, the first time either of them has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate.

“For almost four years, we’ve lived through nothing but drama,” Bob Worsley said. “I’m ready for a no-drama president again, and I really don’t care which party he comes from.”

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