Sunday, Oct. 5, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney visited Boulder City last week to rally the Republican base for Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jon Porter. His visit also served to excite another group that could prove critical to Republican fortunes in November: Mormons.
Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stirred a national conversation about his faith during the primary season and excited Mormons who savored the prospect of seeing one of their own elected president.
The effect was felt deeply in Nevada.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 11 percent of Nevadans are Mormon, compared with 2 percent of Americans nationally. Mormons made up more than a quarter of Republican caucusgoers here and they voted overwhelmingly for Romney. (He got 95 percent of the Mormon vote.) In what is expected to be a tight race, winning those voters’ support could be critical for McCain.
History is on McCain’s side. About 85 percent of Mormons have favored the Republican candidate in past presidential elections, said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum who studies religion and politics. “It may be a stereotype that Mormons are Republican, but it’s a true stereotype,” he said.
Mormons, he said, agree with Republicans on social issues, such as opposition to gay marriage and abortion, and the party’s principles of free market economics and limited government.
That wasn’t always the case. As Richard and Joan Ostling write in “Mormon America,” in the 1890s, after the church dissolved its own political party, members were encouraged to choose between the two major parties and felt more affinity with Democrats because Republicans had led a war on polygamy and thrown up roadblocks to Utah’s statehood. Over time, most Mormons found a home with Republicans.
Politics, however, is not preached from the pulpit, experts said. Church leaders have gone to great lengths to emphasize the neutrality of the church, issuing a letter before each election to be read aloud to congregations. The church does not endorse candidates.
This year’s letter, issued late last month, urges members to vote and “actively support those you believe will most nearly carry out your ideas of good government.” Also noted: “Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties.”
If fact, Mormons are considerably less political in church than their Catholic and Baptist counterparts, according to research conducted by Quin Monson, a political scientist at Brigham Young University. “You could count the number of Mormon survey respondents who admitted to political discussion in church on one hand,” he said.
The church does instill a strong sense of civic responsibility and encourages its members to run for public office, though. Among its most prominent members in Southern Nevada is Rory Reid, chairman of the Clark County Commission.
“There’s a real effort to keep politics separate,” he said. “It’s just not appropriate to talk about it in church meetings.”
Reaching the community, then, means tapping individual Mormons’ social networks, Monson said. Congregation leaders, he said, are strongly discouraged from using church membership lists for political purposes.
But this isn’t to say the Mormon leadership doesn’t get involved in issues it considers relevant to its teachings. In 2006, for instance, the church joined with other faiths in asking Congress for a marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and in California it is campaigning against a gay-marriage ballot measure.