Column: The liberal black sheep

Members of the Rexburg gather together to protest police brutality and advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020. Photo credit: Grace Wride

For the last half-century, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has held a position of political neutrality. They step back in matters of partisan politics. When election season rolls around, they form neither favorable or unfavorable statements of politicians, platforms or parties. Instead, letters flood congregations throughout the world encouraging members of the Church to be politically involved in their communities as voters, candidates and elected officials.

However, in the early years of the Church, political involvement among leaders and members looked different.

According to the Church History essay topic entitled Political Neutrality, “During the nineteenth century, the Church as an institution was heavily involved in electoral politics at the state, territorial and national levels. Church leaders during this time period held offices, endorsed parties and platforms, lobbied government officials and diplomats, and organized rallies.”

Many members of the Church have held elected office both at the state and federal level, both as Republicans and Democrats. The five most notable are the following:

— Harry Reid, a liberal senator from Nevada who served from 1987 to 2018. During this time, he held the position of senate majority and senate minority leader.

— President James E. Faust, who before his call to apostleship served in the Utah House of Representatives and led the Utah Democratic Party.

— Mitt Romney, a current senator for the state of Utah who was the 2012 Republican presidential candidate.

— Reed Smoot, a Utah state senator who served from 1902 to 1933 during his calling as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.

— President Ezra Taft Benson, who served as the Secretary of Agriculture during the Eisenhower administration

My personal experience

When I was 14 years old, I became aware of how I didn’t fit the “mold” of a traditional Latter-day Saint woman. Sitting in my Miamaid class, listening to a “Women and the Priesthood” lesson I had heard several times before, I recited the doctrine by rote. “Women didn’t have the authority of the priesthood but that didn’t mean he loved his daughters any less.”

The teacher compared the doctrines of the Church to the doctrines of the feminist movement. Asserting that feminism stood for the idea of female superiority, she showed disdain for feminism as a whole. Fourteen-year-old me didn’t know a lot about current events, but I was passionate about being a feminist. In most circumstances, I would correct someone who didn’t understand and proudly share my feminist label. However, the spirit touched me in that moment to hold my tongue. The Lord knew it wasn’t the time or place.

Balancing faith and politics

It seems liberal and Democrat members of the Church constantly defend their views against those who question how they could be faithful members of the Church while supporting and advocating liberal positions on issues and policies.

“I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it,” Harry Reid said in a Deseret News Article by Dennis Romboy.

Similar ideas about the relationship of personal faith and political affiliation resonate with left-leaning BYU-I students.

“I am able to rectify (my political beliefs and my faith) through understanding that I’m operating under the principles of Christlike love and charity and humility, and just following the golden rule,” said Maya Miller, a junior studying music. “I think that in a lot of ways, reaching out to those in need, and those who are on the margins is a quality that was demonstrated very often in the New Testament by Christ.“

Tying liberal values back to Christlike traits was a common theme among students.

“We’re taught to love everyone,” said Jenna Forbes, a freshman studying data science. “The first thing that comes to mind is trying to have political beliefs that go in line with trying to make sure everyone’s taken care of and everyone has their needs met.”

Liberals on campus

Many consider BYU-I to be the more conservative cousin to its sister school, BYU. conducts an annual survey determining how several colleges rank regarding political and social conservatism based on “student reviews of the political leanings of the campus community.” BYU-I has always ranked in the top five among hundreds of schools.

Conservatism consumes campus culture. Some progressive and liberal students feel out of place.

“People like to attack what they don’t understand,” said Sabrina White, a junior studying early childhood special education.

Each of the students I interviewed for this article are members of the Progressive Student Society. They expressed feelings of isolation and loneliness when they didn’t match the majority.

“​​It’s almost like self-isolation sometimes,” Jensen said “You can’t really be like extremely good friends with anybody. It’s wrong to be liberal. It’s against the gospel or whatever. You get that a good amount of times. You get people who are like, ‘Oh, I don’t care about your political beliefs, or opinions.’ But they do. It’s just difficult finding friends a lot of the time.”

According to a Pew Research survey conducted in 2014, 70% of members of the Church identify as Republicans or lean right. With such an overwhelming majority among members of the Church, being an out and open liberal can be intimidating.

“I’ll try my best to be polite and courteous, especially since I’m one of the few progressive people up here,” Miller said. “It feels sometimes like there’s a lot of expectations for me to be just this perfect person who is a master of debate, but also really polite and non-confrontational. Often times you will hear secondhand how some people feel about progressive people without them realizing that there’s one in the room.”

Assuming peers share beliefs and making comments that belittle those who are different from us hinders potential friendships. Jumping to conclusions based on anything, race, gender, sexual orientation or political affiliation, transforms three-dimensional sons and daughters of God into one-dimensional stereotypes incapable of change.

Call to action

Political polarization has seeped into every aspect of our lives. It is no longer just a problem only in the White House and senate chamber. The ugly face of political division reaches church meetings, universities, marriages and homes.

Commenting on this realization, Dallin H. Oaks chastised members of the Church in his October 2020 general conference address, “That is one reason we encourage our members to refrain from judging one another in political matters. We should never assert that a faithful Latter-day Saint cannot belong to a particular party or vote for a particular candidate.”

Zion isn’t about conformity. We’re not expected to all think the same way. Christ calls us to unity. However, unity requires faith, love and trust. Education about the reality of certain groups and the individuals we know who belong to these groups is key to building the kingdom of God.