Editor’s note: Daily Universe senior reporters Andrea Cabrera and Sydnee Gonzalez interviewed individuals in Utah and Washington, D.C., to see how politics and religion intersect in the United States.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Growing up, Latter-day Saint Sam Dearden frequently heard comments like “You can’t be a liberal or a Democrat and be a good Mormon.”
Dearden, who now works for the U.S. Agency for International Development, didn’t quite fit in when his family moved from Boston to Utah when he was 11, even though he shared the same religion with the majority of his peers. As an adult, he realizes the differences stemmed in part from a distinction in how he approached politics compared to many other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I think for a lot of members of the Church, who tend to have conservative backgrounds, it’s just second nature often to say these two identities go together very well,” Dearden said. “I think that’s pretty inappropriate considering that conservative and Republican are nowhere near as important identities as Christian.”
In today’s political climate members of all faiths are having to balance their religious beliefs with their political views — and it’s no easy task
Mixing politics and religion can be beneficial for some, such as Sen. Mitt Romney who said prayer had a major role in his decision to vote in favor of impeaching President Donald Trump. But it can also have darker consequences like increased secularization and the demonization of those of one’s faith with opposing viewpoints, something President Dallin H. Oaks said has spilled over into church meetings.
The balance between politics and religion is nothing new in the United States. Separation of church and state is written into its founding documents, yet the philosophical ramifications of that idea are still debated. Where’s the line between the two? Does it fall between a classroom and an invocation to the divine? Or does it lie somewhere near the declaratory lines of “One nation under God?”
Americans are divided on the question. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that although 63% of U.S. adults want religious groups to stay out of politics, more than half of Americans also view religion as a force for good in society.
A blurred line: Political ideologies and religious principles
For Sen. Mike Lee, religion is a fundamental part of his political ideologies. “My religious beliefs form every aspect of my life. There’s nothing in my life that isn’t influenced in one way or another by them,” the Latter-day Saint told the Daily Universe.
UVU student Ryan Griffith, who hosts a conservative podcast called “Not at the dinner table,” also uses religion to shape his political stances. “I always look at it through the lens of what eternal truths are at play here,” he said. “So when I look at issues like abortion, I can see the internal truth of agency, but I also look at choice and accountability, and I look at the eternal value of life.”
Mo Elinzano, a digital organizing associate for Biden for President, tries to focus on which party’s platform best represents her religious values and morals. “I am very passionate and proud of being both a Mormon and Democrat,” she said. “If we’re really trying to emulate being like the Savior, I don’t think the Republican Party, especially under Trump or conservatism, reflects that.”
Mixing the two isn’t always straightforward. Lee received widespread criticism in October for comparing President Donald Trump to Book of Mormon hero Captain Moroni during a political rally in Arizona. He acknowledged that not all members of his faith agreed with the comparison, but added that he wasn’t impressed with the manner in which individuals expressed their disagreement.
“We shouldn’t belittle others when they draw on a spiritual or a scriptural argument in defense of what they believe,” Lee said. “Saying, ‘Thou shalt not invoke scripture,’ or compare a fallible mortal human being to someone revered from the scriptures, just doesn’t do it for me … It has the effect of essentially banning religious thought and religious expression from the public square.”
Lauren Lethbridge, a copywriter from Utah who leans conservative, believes trying to keep religion and politics separate can be exhausting and that individuals should let their morals and personal beliefs, which can often be based on religion, guide their actions and decisions.
She remembers politics and religion being mixed from a young age and said her parents often looked to church leaders to determine their political choices or opinions. That connection, though, is something she’s broken away from growing up. “If I have a dissenting view from the majority of the Church, it does not reflect on my personal standing within my religion or my relationship with God,” she said.
For Georgetown student Matteo Caulfield, it wasn’t his family or friends that were melding religious leaders’ opinions with political choices, it’s his own church.
“The Catholic Church is an inherently political organization that often gives guidance to its members on how to engage with public policy,” he said. “These teachings are branded as Catholic Social Justice.”
He noted, though, that seeing politics talked about from the pulpit doesn’t necessarily mean Catholics are tied to one political party of the other. In fact, the Pew Research Center has found Catholic voters have been equally divided between the two major parties.
Religious freedom for all: Dissecting policy from beliefs
BYU alumnus Bogdan Banu, an NGO director in D.C. who is originally from Romania and a member of the Romanian (Eastern) Orthodox Church, said the heavy intersection between politics and religion in U.S. politics is unusual, especially compared to European politics.
“You’re more articulate in presenting your point if you have good arguments as to what your point of view is,” Banu said. “Simply saying that ‘I believe in something,’ it may work in a religious context, but if you want to translate that into policy, you have to have certain things to back up your religious point of view.”
Arsalan Malik, a non-religious lawyer in D.C. whose religious upbringing was split between an atheist father and a Muslim mother, is concerned by what he sees as an inauthentic melding of politics and religion from politicians.
“When politicians generally bring up religion, at least recently, it’s not for altruistic purposes, it is for their own self interest in expanding the electorate,” Malik said. “The other thing I’m concerned about lately with religion and politics, is that it’s becoming more divisive and religion is also becoming a way to weaponize against minorities.”
He pointed towards Trump’s Muslim ban as an example and emphasized the fact that while politicians can help protect religious freedom, there is a fundamental distinction between enhancing freedoms for all religions and pandering to just one religion.
Rev. Patrick Conroy, who serves as chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives, echoed Malik’s sentiments. He said there’s a line between the government protecting religious prerogatives and protecting religious freedom.
“We ought not to ask government to enforce our positions,” Conroy said. “We’re doing religiously important and valuable work when we try to work within our system rather than demand that our system enforce our black-and-white, morally truthful positions, because those aren’t shared across the board.”
Middle ground: Finding a balance between politics and religion
Conroy believes religion has an important presence in the political atmosphere. He’s found that many members of Congress value having someone in their midst who can remind them of the gravity of their positions and the impact they have on Americans. “(My) being present, as I’ve been told, really matters to them.”
Conroy’s ministry serves as a model for how religion in the political sphere can be unifying rather than divisive. Although a Jesuit priest, Conroy strives to make his ministry inclusive to individuals of all religions and those who aren’t religious.
“I want this office to be the one place where everybody can say amen,” he said. “The one time, maybe all day or all year, they can agree on something should come out of the Chaplain’s Office.”
His advice to individuals trying to balance politics and religion is to weigh the practical work of government as opposed to the religious certainty of a church.
For some, balancing religion and politics is easier said than done. For Latter-day Saint Alicia Moulton, the road to political engagement hasn’t been easy. “I’ve had a love-hate relationship with politics. I feel like it’s important to be a good citizen, but I’ve often been very turned off by the way in which people talk about political topics,” she said. “It’s taken a lot of work in my life.”
One of the things that’s helped her navigate engaging with politics has been her faith. “Our belief in people as children of God and that everyone is worthy of respect can be a guiding star to us, and not in dictating our opinions but in helping us do it in a way that’s Christlike.”
Dianna Douglas, a journalist who currently produces Zion’s Suffragists (a podcast about LDS women’s political involvement), said Latter-day Saints have a long legacy of political involvement.
“My faith is the reason that I am involved in politics today,” she said. “It is our job as Latter-day Saints to try to change the country for the better, to try to change society for the better, to work on our communities, to save our communities, to improve our communities.”
A key step to a healthy political system is diversity of opinion and thought. Douglas has seen first hand the downsides of communities of faith overly identifying with one political party after living in both Utah and D.C.
“The Church and Utah would be so much better served if there was a little bit more balance and diversity in the politics there, in the same way, I also think D.C. politics would be better served with a little bit more room for more opinions and more perspectives,” she said.
Jeffrey Stark, a geographic information systems analyst for USPS currently based in D.C., has also experienced Mormonism on the East and West coast. “There is less of an attitude out here of ‘The Democratic Party is the great and abominable church’ than you’ll see in the western United States,” he said.
He hasn’t been drawn into liberal politics during his time in D.C., instead deciding to remain a moderate — an identity he’s come to in part because of his faith. He’s been frustrated, though, to see other Church members’ “sanctimonious bashing” of fellow members with opposing religious views.
“Not everything in the Republican platform or the Democratic platform is entirely in line with, as I see it, the teachings of the gospel,” Stark said. “There isn’t necessarily the Lord’s way versus the world’s way when it comes to various policies.”
BYU sociology professor Jacob Rugh said the idea that Latter-day Saints fall into a specific political party is slowly starting to break, especially in Salt Lake County.
“Religious beliefs do have a place in the public’s view on the political sphere,” Rugh said, adding that even members of the same faith can end up endorsing different solutions. “Religion is your values and your principles; politics is the process of compromise and consensus, coalition building, passing laws and getting something done.”
Ben Mack, a Latter-day Saint with Capitol Hill experience and a U.S. congressional campaign under his belt, believes Americans, and especially Latter-day Saints, have an opportunity in the current political environment to create bridges.
“(Religion) helps me personally to see other people around me in a certain way. I see them as my brothers and sisters and I see them as children of God, no matter how passionately I feel about a certain policy stance,” Mack said. “The camaraderie and the brotherhood and sisterhood, the commonality that we have is so much greater.”
For LDS freelance writer Jared Burton, the camaraderie of the Church has sustained him during a political identity crisis. Although he was raised in a conservative Republican family in Colorado, he felt like politics had changed after he returned from serving an LDS mission in Brazil.
“It’s been kind of cool to have this, as I sort of have this political identity shift whatever’s going on, sense of community in the Church. I don’t have to worry about belonging to a (political) party,” Burton said.
With additional reporting from Andrea Cabrera