Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010 | 2 a.m.
When Sharron Angle’s pastor went on a hate-filled rant about Mormonism, calling the religion “kooky” and a “cult,” it was tempting to assume the Republican U.S. Senate candidate would pay the consequences. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are among Nevada’s most politically engaged and conservative constituencies.
But it is Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, himself a Mormon, who is facing the tough questions from members of the faith.
That was apparent the moment he walked into a meeting of the Mormon Business Associates networking group in August. Members, angry with his liberal policies, peppered Reid with questions about immigration and gay marriage. They booed him, according to people who were there, and shouted catcalls.
“It was an absolute blood bath,” said a woman who attended.
Wednesday, it was Angle’s turn to appear before the group — and she was welcomed with cheers and a standing ovation. The woman who described Reid’s “blood bath” called the Angle event a “love fest.” The candidate was even signing autographs.
“She was on the home-team turf,” said Ron Futrell, a former TV sports reporter turned Republican political consultant who attended both events. “When Harry came, it was like he was on the visiting team. You’d think it would be the Mormon who would get the nice reception. It was the exact opposite.”
Mormons make up 7 percent of the Nevada population, according to the church. Leaders stress civic engagement and voting as sacred responsibilities, so turnout among church members is expected to be high. In the 2008 Republican presidential caucus, Mormons made up a quarter of the vote. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, captured 94 percent of their support.
Rallying the Mormon base won’t be easy for Reid, despite his shared religion. Reid has an uneasy, sometimes contentious relationship with some members of his church. An appearance by Reid at a Mormon chapel this year had to be canceled after members expressed anger over him potentially using the venue to gather votes.
Several LDS members interviewed by the Sun stressed that they see Reid as a good and respectable man of faith. But they don’t agree with his politics.
“I don’t think there’s this big hate from the members toward Harry,” said Cory Christensen, a Republican political consultant and LDS member whose brother Chad ran for Senate in the Republican primary. “Most people I know just disagree with him philosophically on real issues ... Some folks who are more his age that he grew up with will support him. But I don’t know anyone under age 50 who say they’re with Harry.”
Reid’s standing among church members appears to have eroded as he ascended the ranks of the Democratic Party. Reid is the highest-ranking Mormon in government.
“Harry, in 24 years in the Senate, has progressively become more of an East Coast liberal Democrat than a Nevada conservative Democrat,” Futrell said. “He’s counted on the LDS community for years and years to back him, which a lot of members have. But the LDS church is very conservative — we believe in less government and more liberty. Those are tenets of the religion and I think a lot of people in the community see Harry Reid as the opposite.”
A turning point came in 2006 when Reid voted against a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Although Reid believes marriage should be between a man and woman, as the church teaches, he said the ban would “divide our society.”
In a rare move, LDS church leaders in Salt Lake City urged members to write elected officials and ask them to support the ban. When Reid didn’t, it opened a rift between him and members who concluded that his politics betrayed his religious beliefs.
Afterward, Reid wrote a letter to Mormon leaders in the Las Vegas Valley defending his position, saying gay marriage is a states’ issue in which the federal government shouldn’t play a role, a message he reiterated when he spoke to the Mormon business networking group. Futrell said some saw Reid’s explanation as a “convenient excuse.”
A 2009 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that nearly 65 percent of Mormons are Republican or Republican leaning. That’s 15 percentage points higher than members of evangelical churches and 30 points higher than the general population. Only 22 percent of Mormons said they are Democrats.
Angle’s message of reliance on the Constitution and a free-market economy resonates with the conservative LDS community, experts said. She’s also working hard to make herself known to Mormons.
For months she has met members at gatherings in private homes and businesses to explain where she’s coming from and the similarity of her beliefs with the teachings of the church. Angle told a story to the networking group about a Mormon girl she befriended in her youth. She said she attended church with the girl and participated in the church’s program for young women.
“We had her in our house in August and I was very impressed,” said Kenna Cooper, a Las Vegas Mormon. “I wanted to make sure she’s not wacky like she’s being portrayed. She’s not. She’s a good conservative mother and grandmother.”
Cooper said she decided to volunteer for Angle after the visit. Like other Mormons, she has canvassed and hosted phone banks.
To be sure, there are Mormons who support Reid, but they seem to be the minority, at least among members who openly share their political preferences.
Jay Evensen, editorial page editor for the Deseret News and a former Las Vegas reporter, said he returned to Nevada recently and reconnected with several Mormon friends who support Reid. “Why?” Evensen wrote in a column. “Sharron Angle is seen as too far out there.”
Evensen also pointed to the anti-Mormon comments by Angle’s pastor, a concern that some Las Vegas Mormons echoed. Pastor John Reed of Sonrise Church in Reno, which Angle stated was her church in her official legislative biography, accused the religion of having “hit squads” that “kill Mormons that go against them,” among other things.
Angle tried to distance herself from Reed, saying she shouldn’t be held responsible for other people’s comments and believes no one should be persecuted or ridiculed for their faith. When her pastor’s comments came up during her meeting with the Mormon networking group, Angle quoted scripture — 1 John 5:10: “Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.”
Most of the group appeared to accept Angle’s word. But at least one woman who heard Angle speak didn’t buy her explanation.
“I would have asked her how she can prove to me that she doesn’t feel like my church is a cult,” the woman said. She declined to give her name because she said she feared repercussions for talking to the media.
The Mormon church, although certainly conservative in its views now, hasn’t always been in line with Republican and Tea Party philosophies. During the Depression and up to the middle of the century, the LDS church leaned Democratic, said Jan Shipps, an expert on Mormonism and a professor emeritus at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Only in the 1950s did it shift right, likely the effect of a conservative rising leader, Ezra Taft Benson, who was a supporter of the John Birch Society.
“It became more and more conservative until it almost seemed like being Republican and being Mormon were the same thing,” Shipps said.
Modern day influences such as conservative media personality Glenn Beck, who is a Mormon, keep the church on that path, Shipps said.
“I think it’s a time of extreme conservatism,” Shipps said. “I think even though Mitt Romney talks about being conservative, he is more liberal than Sharron Angle. I think if they ran against each other, Sharron Angle would win the Mormon vote.”